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Dec 30 2012

2013 could be the year of the comet

If you’re as old as I am you have reason to be skeptical about comets. Comet Kohoutek in 1973 and the much anticipated return of Comet Halley in 1986 both failed to live up to their potential. But ISON may yet redeem the genre and prove spectacular:

Discovery News — NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover also may get a look when the comet sails past the red planet in early October.

The comet’s journey likely started in the Oort Cloud, a cluster of icy rocks that circle the sun about 50,000 times farther away than Earth’s orbit. Comet ISON is expected to pass as close as 700,000 miles, or 1.1 million kilometers, from the sun on Nov. 28.

If it survives, the comet could be the brightest to appear in Earth’s skies since 1965 and could even be visible in daylight.

Kohoutek was a long period comet thought to visiting the inner solar system for the first time. It was believed the tiny rocky nucleus would be encased in volatile ices that had never been heated and thus there would be enormous amounts of material available to form a glowing tail. For some reason it did not produce the hoped for effect. Comet Halley is a short period comet that visits about every 76 years. But in 1986 its orbit traced out a path far away from earth during the period of greatest brightness.

I still haven’t seen an orbit for ISON and it may be the same spectacular comet that appeared 300 years ago. But skywatchers say it will be less than a million miles from the sun’s surface at closest approach, plenty of time for surface ices to boil off even if they are under a thin layer of insulating substances. In fact the biggest threat to ISON is it will calve into pieces or disintegrate completely before making its way back into the dark distant depths in which it spends the vast majority of its life.

11 comments

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  1. 1
    Randomfactor

    I did watch both Kohoutek and Halley. Halley is something of a bittersweet memory; two of its appearances coincided with Mark Twain’s birth and death, and its most recent one with my dad’s passing.

  2. 2
    thisisaturingtest

    Another opportunity for the doomsday prophets to get worked up over (and sell stuff with). Like Elenin in 2011; I pointed out to one of these idiots on Yahoo! once that a Volkswagen in California has more effect on a pedestrian in New York than Elenin could possibly have on anyone on Earth, and got the equivalent of “says you! It ain’t just gravity, man…there’s other stuff!”

  3. 3
    machintelligence

    There were two great comets at the end of the 20th century:
    Hale-Bopp in 1995 and
    Heyatakoute in 1996.
    The last one was quite spectacular, since the distance from head to the end of the visible (without magnification) tail was nearly 60 degrees of arc.Viewing at 10,000 feet, well away from light pollution helped.

  4. 4
    DonDueed

    MI, did you mean Comet Hyakutake?

  5. 5
    revjimbob

    Hale Bopp was discovered in 95, but was at its peak in 97.

  6. 6
    Argle Bargle

    I saw both Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake. Neither disappointed even though I live in one of the most light-polluted areas of the world.

  7. 7
    machintelligence

    Oops. That will teach me to use Google instead of my failing memory.

  8. 8
    Crudely Wrott

    I was fortunate enough to view Hyakutake from 7000 feet in Wyoming. On one particular night of its passage there was exceptionally good seeing.
    As my eyes accustomed to the darkness I could see the nucleus at first but after a few minutes, oh my, after a few minutes, I was amazed; as close to stunned as I’ve ever been without a blow to my head.
    The tail was spread across a full third of the sky! Dimly, to be sure, but there it was. I felt a sense of awe.
    I’m looking forward eagerly to ISON’s passage in about a year. I’d like to feel that way again.

  9. 9
    sunsangnim

    I remember Hale-Bopp well. The Heaven’s Gate cult suicide was one of the incidents that led to my embrace of skepticism. At the time, I was into a lot of new age nonsense. I remember thinking, “these guys are clearly crazy, but they believe in UFOs, and so do I. They believe in an immaterial spirit, and so do I. Are my beliefs crazy, too?”

    A few months later, I read The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan, and that sealed the deal. Haven’t looked back since.

  10. 10
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    2013 could be the year of the comet

    I sure hope so!

    Year of the supernova would be even better!

    Best one I’ve ever seen is Comet McNaught 2007 though Hyakutake1996 and Hale-Bopp 1997 were excellent too & Lovejoy last year this time was great as well albeit short-lived.

    Oh well – Happy New Year and clear skies for y’all in 2013. :-)

  11. 11
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Best one = referring to comets o’course.

    Never seen a supernova. (Was around in 1987 but missed it – too young really at time.)

    Thinking Comet Kohoutek :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SocFRQ6LQv0

    As y’probably already know, REM have a song ’bout that. (Well, title~wise anyhow.)

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