Christopher Shingledecker said that there are some astronomical events so rare that they just can’t be missed.
There are once-in-a-lifetime events like Halley’s comet every 75-79 years; sequential solar eclipses observable from a particular location on Earth can be centuries apart. But even rarer is the chance to see a comet, currently moving through our region of the solar system, which visits once every 50 millennia.
Shingledecker, the assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, recently commented on one of those: The coming of a comet that passes the earth every 50,000 years.
He plans for his students to observe the “C/2022 E3” comet discovered by California’s Zwicky Transient Facility Comet with students at the college’s Daglen Observatory when the comet is visible on the first two days of February. The Daglen Observatory is part of the Vatican Observatory Consortium. Kimberly Heatherton at OSV News interviewed Shingledecker about the event.
“If you look at the history of human interactions with the heavens — with the night sky in particular — comets are always seen as being special events whenever they occur,” Shingledecker told OSV. In fact, he said, the 11th-century masterpiece, the Bayeux Tapestry, depicts Halley’s Comet.
Shingledecker is a sought-after astronomer who spoke at the Angelicum in Rome about the prospects for life in outer space, and who previously explained the significance of the new NASA Space Telescope images.
He was part of an international team of astronomers who were among the first to use NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope which in 2021 took the place of the Hubble Space Telescope as NASA’s flagship space telescope. It is capable of viewing objects up to 100 times fainter than what Hubble could see. Shingledecker’s team project “Blazing the Trail of Complex Organic Molecules from Ice to Gas” seeks to observe and understand the very earliest stages of star- and planet-forming regions. To support Shingledecker’s project the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates the $10 billion telescope, has awarded the team a research grant of $187,000, part of which will fund summer research assisted by Benedictine College students working with Shingledecker on the project.
Though Shingledecker has previously studied the chemical makeup of comets (https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/1538-4357/ab5360) this rare
February comet is not at the center of his research, but he said it is a great reminder that we are not the greatest thing in the universe.
“We often get distracted with living in the electronic and digital world — so much so that we forget to experience nature directly,” he told OSV. “An event like this is a good excuse to put down the phone, step away from the harsh glare of the screen, and enjoy the calm glow from the stars.”
Take a trip out of town to avoid light pollution, he said, and look up, he said, think about creation — and think about God.
“There’s a tug that — even if one resists it — draws one to the edge of realization. This universe doesn’t explain itself: why do we have this universe? Why do we have something rather than nothing?” Shingledecker told OSV. “God can draw people from that point to Him. It’s a natural response. Beauty draws people to God. And I think the beauty of the universe definitely does that.”