The Covid Comet?
Comet Neowise was spotted by a Space Observatory back in March as the UK headed into lockdown. Initially it was thought that it would be another 'fizzler': that like a few recent discoveries that at first seemed promising, it would run out of energy before it could make much of an impact on our skies. But its true strength and resilience to the interstellar forces that would seek to pull it apart was underestimated. Now it looks as though the Northern Hemisphere's near quarter of a century wait for a 'Great' comet we've been experiencing since Hale-Bopp in 1997 may actually be over.
The new comet may be visible with the naked eye but it'll look far better through binoculars or a telescope. Its distinctive head and stubby tail is best seen in dark skies and from a good elevation, but has been observed all over the Nothern Hemisphere as it returns from its trip around the Cancerian Sun. That has resulted in some spectacular pictures flooding news timelines, including one magnificent photo of Neowise proudly displayed above a Stonehenge silhouetted against the twilit sky. Pre-dawn and just after sunset it may be found low in the North Eastern sky.
Named after the instrument that discovered it, the Neowise has arrived at one of the most challenging times society has faced in the last hundred years. Experts have marvelled at it. Theoretically, it shouldn't be brightening the way it has been. The fact that, despite the odds, it has been, sends a message of hope we can all relate to. And despite its technical origins, it's name seems to represent exactly what we should take from the unprecedented challenges we all face now: new (NEO) understanding (WISE). It's so apt, I might even go as far as to give it a second name: The Covid Comet.
But are the secrets it shares and the knowledge it holds something we should embrace or be cautious about? Does its appearance in these troubled times warrant celebration, or fear? After all comets have long been associated with the end of empires and the fall of kings. Could it be a harbinger of doom, or is it a celestial sign that the worst may now be over?
The story of comets in astrology can be traced back to the Ancient myths and the daughters of one of the most famous of all the characters immortalised in the stars: Orion.
After the great hunter died, his wife brought up his daughters Menippe and Metioche while the Goddess Minerva taught them to weave and Venus gave them beauty. One year a plague broke out and the oracle of Apollo decreed that two sacrifices were needed.
Much to the sadness of their many admirers, the young maidens offered themselves and took their own lives with the sharp ends of their weaving shuttles. Pluto and his Queen, the rulers of the underworld, pitied these pious young girls whose lives had been so touched by tragedy, and made them into comets and meteorites.
Other myths involve the nymph Electra, who upon hearing of the sacking of Troy, tore out her hair, which became a comet. (If I have to go without a hairdresser under lockdown much longer, I may have to do the same thing!) Meanwhile the Chinese usually consider them bad luck and call them 'broom stars' - for sweeping away the messes we've made. So wherever you look, the ancients associate comets with tragedy - often in the guise of disease, plague and the fall of empires.
It all sounds quite worrying doesn't it? That's not surprising. One of things comets can do is raise the collective sense of fear in the world. They seem to permeate our subconscious and instil worry and doubt. Perhaps it's their surprising appearance as opposed to cyclical planetary movement? Whatever it is they seem to induce unsettling feelings in a lot of us and focus us on our own fragile mortality.
But it's not all of the story. Because comets aren't just about tragedy. They're also about metamorphosis, about innovation and the swift adaptation and adoption of technology. For every King, like Harold, whose reign Halley's comet seemed to cut short in 1066, there is a conquerer like William, for whom the same comet ushered in a new era of success. It's even thought that life on earth may only be possible thanks to the material brought here and created when comets collided with Earth.
So the appearance of a comet in this time of difficulty for humanity isn't exactly a surprise to those of us who study the sky for meaning. What it foretells however is something less predictable. Comets often signify periods of dramatic realignment of political and financial patterns, when the nature of trade is disrupted and changed in ways that barely seemed possible beforehand.
As the world becomes ever more conscious of how little money is worth when you're not able to move about freely to spend it, we may all start to adjust our priorities in this light. It compels us not to delay in taking opportunities while they are available. It also reminds us that, no matter how nice a house or comfortable our surroundings, without the people we love to enjoy them with, their novelty fades.
As we look to rebuild our economy and our society in the wake of this coronavirus, we must try not to lose sight of the changes we've made and continue to make under lockdown. That's remembering to put people first, ahead of material gain. It's about putting the roles in society that keep us safe and make life worth living at the top of the agenda. It's about using technology to save lives and strengthen relationships, rather than as a distraction that keeps us from engaging with each other.
A Better World?
The Covid Comet is not a harbinger of doom, or the sign of an unpalatable inevitability. It's an instruction to do things better, to get our priorities in order and to focus on how we can create a more just and empathetic world. It's discovery, just as Aquarius received Saturn for the first time in a generation, compels us to reimagine the rules by which society has organised and see how we can learn to create stronger, more stable foundations upon which to build. And it also encourages us to refocus our efforts on how technology can be used to help safeguard the future, rather than simply distract and pacify restless minds.
As we start to tentatively emerge from lockdown and try to come to terms with the kind of life we'll be able to live in its immediate aftermath, we cannot forget the lessons that this experience has taught us. When the chips are down, people really do come together as one. When progressive ideas are needed and hard choices must be made, people are willing to step up and get to work. And when new information requires us to change the way we operate, we need to learn quickly to adopt protocols and adapt our routines.
None of us has been left untouched by this crisis. Many of us have lost people we care deeply about. And for those of us who remain and must find a way to carry on, the Covid Comet is a promise to each one us that we're tougher than we realise. But it's also the revelation that there are more caring people out there than it sometimes feels like. As the comet heads back out into deep space, and we on Earth head into the challenges that lie ahead, that's a message to keep in our hearts. And it's a mantra with which to build something bright and new.