Showtime for Comet ISON

Comet ISON shows off its tail in this three-minute exposure taken on November 19, using a 14-inch telescope located at the Marshall Space Flight Center. (NASA/MSFC/Aaron Kingery)

I’ve just returned from three weeks in Chile leading a group of 87 astronomy enthusiasts, searching for the comet. We did finally see it, starting November 6, but it was a dim, tailless eight-magnitude smudge, at least six times dimmer than initial predictions. Special photographic techniques showed a long thin tail, but no tail appeared through our telescopes to the eye alone.

Comet Lovejoy higher up in the sky was much brighter and far easier to find, and yet even Lovejoy was no spectacle. I’m starting to hate comets. This attitude puts me in sync with thousands of years of superstitious observers who regarded them as portents of evil.

It is true that in the mid-‘90s we had two great comets back-to-back in the long-lingering Hale Bopp and the brief-but-spectacularly-sky-spanning Hyakutake. Going back another decade, 1985’s Comet Halley was a disappointment, though it was visible to the naked eye. And stepping back to the mid-‘70s, we did have Comet West: a true spectacle in March 1976 that nonetheless performed for only one brief morning during an overcast series of nights in our region.

This past week, with the Moon still brightening up the sky, you could indeed see Comet ISON as a large blob, especially through binoculars, if you had an unobstructed view toward the east and observed way down near the horizon at 5:30 a.m. Now, on Thanksgiving Day, the comet whips frantically around the Sun, passing less than one Sun-width above its fiery, gaseous surface. Subjected to tidal stresses and a temperature of 5,000 degrees, it may not survive this perihelion passage. But if it does, it could be a worthy sight in that same eastern direction the first week of December.

My advice is to look very low in the east at 5:30 a.m. this Sunday morning, and especially Monday morning, December 1, and then every morning thereafter at that same time throughout the coming week – whenever we get clear weather.

The tail will point upward and arc higher into the pre-dawn sky, aiming away from the soon-to-rise Sun. Naked eye, it could be nonexistent, or barely there, or glorious. We could see anything from a no-show to a true spectacle. At this point, nobody knows. And that’s part of the fun.

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