Comet ISON was virtually demolished by its Thanksgiving passage just above the Sun’s surface. Somehow, a few dusty remnants of that ball of ice a mile across survived the 5,000-degree heat just above the solar surface, and the fierce tidal environment.
It wasn’t enough. This week – right now – was when the comet was expected to perform at its very best, with a brilliant tail streaking upward from the predawn horizon. Instead, ISON’s pathetic dusty remnants, continuing by inertia along the comet’s trajectory, are dissipating and fading. As they move farther from the sunlight and spread apart, no viewer on Earth is expected to see anything. Using special photographic techniques and equipment, specialists will probably capture images of some sort.
Some previous Sun-grazing comets have survived to become brilliant objects soon after. Others have not. Perhaps the real issue is hype. My own magazine, Astronomy, was as guilty as others for building up high expectations for Comet ISON. In truth, as we have seen time and again, we can never be sure how a comet’s ices and imbedded dust will react when it approaches the Sun, especially if it’s a first-time visitor. The most reliable comets are the periodic ones that have left a legacy of previous behavior. Of these, the brightest and most famous is Comet Halley, with its 76-year orbit.
Then the key issue is where our planet Earth will be located just as the comet whips around the Sun. During Halley’s last visit in 1985 and ’86, we were on the opposite side of the Sun from the comet, resulting in its worst visual appearance since the Roman Empire. We did hold a Halley’s Comet viewing session for the public at Woodstock’s Andy Lee Field in autumn 1985, and crowds came to see it. But a spectacle? No, not by any honest definition. By contrast, its next visit in 2061 will be nothing short of glorious.
The Comet ISON hype should be instructive. For the last few years, minor meteor showers unfolding during the Full Moon when the sky is washed out have generated unrealistic headlines, urging folks to “See the shooting stars tonight.” People would then go out and see nothing. Similarly, the lunar penumbral eclipse six weeks ago was headlined, when in reality the Moon does not visibly change during such events. There is simply nothing to see.
I watched the comet’s appalling underachievement early, as my group of 87 enthusiasts on a Chilean mountaintop struggled to see any trace of it. Our first group on November 1 saw nothing at all. A week later, the second group did see it – as a large-but-unimpressive smudge in the constellation Virgo, at the first light of dawn. Good thing those nights had been preceded by hours of astounding, crowd-pleasing southern-sky wonders. The comet was really just an excuse to be there. (Hey, join us next year! We’re going again next October. Details soon on https://bermanastronomytours.com).
We’re used to ridiculous cover stories about the Sexiest Man Alive and stuff like that. I hope my fellow science journalists start resisting that sort of sensationalism. That would be the nicest gift that the late, dead Comet ISON could leave us.
Want to know more? To read Bob Berman’s previous “Night Sky” columns, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com.