The Comet Chasers

Comet Kohoutek

During 1973-74, Comet Kohoutek became all the rage. Discovered by Czech astronomy LuboŇ° Kohoutek, scientists believed the comet would become a major event, big, bright, spectacular. I was only 8 at the time, but remember the hype quite well, because no one was more excited about Comet Kohoutek than my mother.

Mom loved outer space. The moon landing beamed onto our TV set, back when we lived with my grandmother, my mom’s mother. Whenever Skylab passed over LA, it became a major event in my family. And by the time the Vikings landed on Mars in 1976, I was old enough to get excited by it, too. Mom had never seen a comet, and Kohoutek promised to be a Big Deal. Dr. George Fischbeck, the Channel 7 news meteorologist, went on and on about it. Dad loved space, too, and loved his wife, so he would take her out here and there to find the perfect viewing spot to see Kohoutek.

But like millions around the world, she never saw it. Comet Kohoutek turned into a major disappointment. Scientists had theorized that Kohoutek had never traveled to the inner solar system previously. Thus, it would contain lots of ice and volatiles that would outgas spectacularly when it heated up during its loop close around the sun. Nope. Turned out it had more rock than expected and it did not spark up nearly as brightly as anticipated.

Kohoutek remained a running gag in my family. Any time another astronomical phenomenon excited Mom, and she dashed outside all hours of the night, we reminded her of Kohoutek. She laughed, but went out anyway. I often joined her. Eclipses, meteor showers, we searched for them all, with varying degrees of success.

In 1996, Comet Hyakutake came round the inner solar system, and the hype machine tuned up again. It appeared in late March of that year. Sadly, by that point Mom had lost much of her mobility, her body ravaged by arthritis and lupus. But that didn’t stop her. She went outside anyway into the front yard in search of Hyakutake. Much to my delight, she phoned me to say that she saw it and we excitedly traded stories. I also saw it from my place in Oakland. A few months later, in June, Mom passed away.

Comet Hale-Bopp put on a much more spectacular show a year later. My husband and I saw it in clear skies from the hills west of Ukiah. The comet’s tail went on and on. It was an awesome sight. Of course I wished for Mom. Dad and I talked wistfully about her and Kohoutek and her finally seeing a comet before passing on.

Last weekend, I trudged uphill on the block where I live in search of Comet Neowise. I needed a clearer view of the horizon the elevation offered. Look in the direction of the Big Dipper just after sunset, the article I read suggested. But in the twilight just after sunset, the Big Dipper remained invisible, so that wasn’t of much help. Just as I was about to text my sister and say “I’m on another Kohoutek run,” I saw it, very small just above Mt. Tamalpias. And in the binoculars, I could see its head and a short tail. Nothing as spectacular as Hale-Bopp had been, but still a thrilling sight.

I may not have become a professional astronomer, but I’ll forever remain fascinating by “out there,” a love I came by honestly thanks to my parents, in particular Mom, our family’s first Comet Chaser.

© 2020, gar. All rights reserved.

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