Memories of astronomy events past

Joe Malan


In everyone's life, there are times where they remember exactly what they were doing or exactly how they felt when some significant event happened.

The same holds true in the astronomical realm, for us astronomers - amateur or professional.

For me, there have been two particular moments in my life where this rings true.

The first was in the late-1990s, when Comet Hale-Bopp made its closest approach to Earth. Specifically, it was in the early part of 1997 when the comet graced Earth's skies with its bright white tail. At least, according to historical records. The reason I can't give you an exact date is because I didn't record when it happened. All I remember is I was in my younger teen years when it happened.

The above paragraph was all probably a little confusing and unnecessary. Regardless, it ranks as one of the two most unforgettable moments in my life, because it was the first time I had ever seen an actual comet. Not just photos in a space book, mind you.

I remember it was as if the tail stretched from one end of the sky to the other. It didn't actually, of course, but in the eyes of an 11-year-old, it must have seemed that way. It was truly one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen.

The second moment happened just a few years ago, when the New Horizons mission flew by Pluto and finally ... FINALLY ... sent back real photos of the farthest planet ... err ... minor planet ... uh, that's not even true either. 

You don't know how frustrating it was growing up, seeing artist's conception after artist's conception, fuzzy image after fuzzy image. Pluto is so small and so far away that the very best Hubble could do was find light regions and dark regions on the planet that just showed up as blobs, for lack of a more eloquent word.

I'll never forget the day the very first images of Pluto from New Horizons came in. I'm pretty sure I was at work, and when the first photos came in, I saw landforms - plains, mountains, these circular regions that look like they were carved by rivers. I could hardly contain my excitement. Pretty sure I posted a bunch of stuff to Facebook, because I'm a nerd when it comes to space.

I want you (the reader) to think about things about astronomy or space that wowed you when you first saw them. What did you see, exactly? How did it make you feel? Did it change your perspective on anything?

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Malan is entertainment editor and astronomy columnist for the News & Eagle. He can be reached at