The comet NEOWISE as seen on NASA’s Parker Solar Probe on July 5, 2020. NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Guillermo Stenborg
Culture Spotlight

As we look out for the NEOWISE comet, we recall the last time a comet appeared in our skies

It was 2007 and it was an innocent time. By JAM PASCUAL
ANCX | Jul 23 2020

According to the Philippine Astronomical Society, Comet NEOWISE will be visible in our skies today, July 23, about an hour after sunset, assuming skies are clear and pollution is mild. The comet was discovered March 20 of this year through NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer Mission (WISE) telescope. After our naked eyes get to steal a glance at this icy wanderer, it won’t reveal itself in our skies for another 6,800 years. We hardly knew ye.

It will pass over a world that, had it a navel, would gaze into it, wracked with its own things to worry about, one of those worries being healing.

Image of the striking Comet McNaught over the Pacific ocean as viewed from the ESO Paranal Observatory. Photo by ESO/Sebastian Deiries via Wikimedia Commons

The last time a comet was visible to the naked eye in our skies was in 2007, and it was Comet McNaught, famous for its shocking size and brightness (“The brightest comet to appear in our skies in more than 30 years,” says space.com in a January 2007 report). Discovered by British-Australian astronomer Robert H. McNaught, the comet was spotted in the constellation of Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer. Easy to confuse this with Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. One represents the ancient Roman god of medicine, the other rebirth through self-consumption. Both can be interpreted as symbols of healing.

2007 apparently saw the release of I Am Legend, which is a bit of a ham-fisted reference to make, but here we are. The difference between the book and movie’s ending merits discussion, but a more interesting topic is how feverishly, even then, modern cinema was approaching its zombie fixation phase until the bubble burst. It was a discursively uninteresting affair, people trying to unpack in a faux scholarly way why we were so obsessed with contagions, mindless hordes, and stockpiling resources and weaponry, as if the apocalypse were a game with rules to play to, instead of a catastrophe to prevent. 

Will Smith on "I Am Legend"

Still, we went to those theatres with friends, salting the shit out of our popcorn and blasting our eyes with friendly Hollywood gore. Snack bar lines and grocery lines were as long as they had always been, impatient suits testing the difference between single file and bustling huddle. These days of joy showed no signs of decay.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was the President of the Philippines and George W. Bush was President of the United States. These names meant nothing to me at the time, 14 and stupid, when perhaps the greatest political concern was the neoliberal obsession of economic growth. I was watching friends decipher the codex of Yahoo! Messenger’s emoticons, brusque boys in a Catholic high school approach emotion like animals sniffing at a trap. I had my first girlfriend. We split earphone jacks over an iPod shuffle and held hands. We broke up after two months.

There was nothing auspicious about the year, and according to my memory, no heavenly body or wayward ball of dust and ice grabbed headlines. The natural phenomena that caught our attention were the usual: typhoons, the occasional baby earthquake. Manila could only be grazed by such things. Bird flu and swine flu would barge in years later on, and those epidemics, defeatable and small, wouldn’t be enough to get schools to bust out public disinfectant dispensers.

But I was young. Invincible body, dread-less heart.

This year I saw two pieces of media in which comets play a part. I rewatched Kimi no Na wa with my girlfriend, in which two lovers really play up the “star-crossed” trope when a comet pulls them through cosmic, supernatural distances towards each other. Another was an episode of One Tree Hill, season 2, in which a meteor shower draws potential lovers, former lovers, more-than-friends-less-than-lovers towards a common spectacle. 

What will NEOWISE pull us to? Is that the right question? There was a time when people could gather, spread a picnic mat on the grass, and gaze at a clear night, just because they could, just because there was nothing else to do, nothing else to think about.