COMET GOT YOUR TAIL?

Astronomers have just discovered that the moon has a tail.*

Not a cat’s tail, but a “comet-like” tail, produced by sodium atoms ejected from the lunar surface, which is constantly bombarded by meteors. As the sodium atoms rise from the volcanic ash that surrounds them, sunlight intersects them, creating a stream of dust particles (photons) that, though invisible to the naked eye, spray a narrow beam of light in our direction that “wraps around Earth’s atmosphere” for
a few days each month, then “shoots out into space” after new moon is over. Some scientists speak about it in almost reverential terms, calling it “a magical thing” and proof of the moon’s “dynamism.”

Since it took nearly a quarter-century to reach that conclusion after the phenomenon was first observed, and fourteen years of data gathering, mathematical calculation and rigorous testing of physico-chemical hypotheses to confirm it, I can understand their professional enthusiasm. However, from a mundane and
world-weary point of view, the existence of what amounts to a lunar wind stretching 500,000 miles into space is not what I would call earth-shaking.

As far as I can see, all it means is more debris, more pollution, and more allergies than ever before. Granted, those “narrow beams” of light have been up to no good for a long time, without our being aware of it; in that sense, nothing has changed except our consciousness of what is going on out on the final frontier.

If nature abhors a vacuum, then why doesn’t someone get a vacuum cleaner (as Mel Brooks did, in Spaceballs) and suck up all of that stuff before it gets under our nose, not to mention our skin? If this is such a breakthrough, why aren’t we prepared to get rid of the mess, even if it means paying a few astronauts overtime to clean up the cosmos?

There may be nothing new under the sun, but as Prospero chided Miranda, “’tis new to thee.” New or old, I can’t get too excited about something that’s invisible, unless it has a name, like Claude Rains, or H.G. Wells, or Ralph Ellison. Perhaps that’s all that’s needed to give this find the hype that it deserves. If they call the lunar wind Mariah, then even the Man in the Moon might pay more attention to it, and start chasing his own tail, especially at harvest time.

That may prove futile, but then, so is life. Halley’s Comet is due back in 2061, only 40 years from now. By then we should have enough experience chasing invisible moonbeams not to care who’s chasing whom. What’s in a name, Sisyphus? If you ask me, it’s just sheer lunacy. Despise, previous moon.

*Robin George Andrews, “The Moon Has a Comet-Like Tail. Every Month It Shoots a Beam Around Earth.” New York Times (March 4, 2021). Source for all quotations above.

James Israel
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Signed: Dennis Rohatyn