Comet ISON: will it be “the Comet of the Century?”

As the hype over “the Comet of the Century” grows, will ISON live up to expectations?

Untitled, Smithsonian Institution, Flickr Commons

Untitled, Smithsonian Institution, Flickr Commons

From my column at Communities @ Washington Times

WASHINGTON DC, February 8, 2013 – In George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice, the basis for HBO’s wildly popular series “Game of Thrones,” a red comet that shines brighter than the moon and that can be seen during the day foretold that war and winter was coming.  For others it meant the return of the dragons and tremendous change.  With the possibility of what many are calling “the Comet of the Century” late this year, will comet ISON be a spectacular sight that will inspire veneration and fear, or will it be a flop?

Officially named C/2012 S1 (ISON), Russian astronomers at the International Scientific Optical Network near Kislovodsk first spotted comet ISON in September 21, 2012.  NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft took the first photos of ISON on January 17 and 18 of this year from a distance of 493 million miles.  If ISON lives up to expectations, it could shine as bright as the moon and visible during the day, according to some.

NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office suggested that ISON is probably making its first pass through our solar system, meaning that its surface has a higher probability of carrying the volatile material and dust that makes comets visible from Earth when they come in close proximity with the sun.  Believed to have originated in the Oort Cloud, ISON will come closest to Earth, about 40 million miles, on December 26, 2013 and is not expected to pose any danger to our planet.

Coming closest to the sun on November 28, 2013, if ISON survives its approach without fading or breaking apart, it could offer up an impressive sight.  With a tail as long as 40,000 miles by January 18 of this year, ISON could put on quite a spectacular show this fall.

A bit of history on mankind’s reaction to comets

Like in George R.R. Martin’s works of fiction, people from ancient cultures have both feared and revered comets.  Comets were believed to be portents of doom and messengers from the gods.  The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh describes comets as accompanied by floods, fire, and brimstone.  Similarly, an ancient Mongolian Yakut legend refers to comets as “daughters of the devil” that bring storms, frost, and destruction whenever they appear in the sky.

The word “comet” comes from the ancient Greek word “kometes,” meaning long hair.  The ancient Greeks believed that a comet looked like the head of a woman with long hair trailing behind, often a symbol of mourning.  Many ancient Greeks believed that comets foretold natural disasters and signaled the gods’ displeasure.     Ancient Romans believed that comets were accompanied by plagues, wars, and blighted crops.  Comets are said to have appeared after the assassination of Julius Caesar and during the war between Pompey and Caesar.  Nero purportedly killed all of his descendants to avoid the “curse of the comet.”  Similarly, the Incas recorded the appearance of a comet in the sky shortly before the arrival of Francisco Pizarro.

Chinese astronomers developed extensive atlases and charts detailing the appearance and movement of comets since the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD).     However, comets were observed and recorded by the Chinese as early as the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), when comets were referred to as “broom stars” which foretold different kinds of catastrophes depending on their individual characteristics.

Halley’s Comet is probably the most famous of all comets, and one which has brought with it great reaction from humans when it appears every 76 years.

In England, the comet’s appearance in 1066 marked the beginning of the Battle of Hastings and blamed for the Black Death in the 14th century.  Believed to be an instrument of the devil by the Catholic Church, Pope Calixtus III excommunicated Halley’s comet in 1456.  In Switzerland, Halley’s comet was blamed for the birth of two-headed livestock, red rain, illness, and earthquakes.

Mark Twain was born in 1835, two weeks after the comet appeared.  He foretold he would die when Halley’s comet reappeared in 1910, and in fact he did, passing away a few days after the comet was spotted.  The 1910 appearance of Halley’s comet caused quite a stir after the Chicago Yerkes Observatory announced the presence of a poisonous gas in the comet’s tail.  Adding to the panic, the New York Times quoted a French astronomer declaring that the gas in the comet’s tail had the ability to obliterate all life on earth.   Panic resulted; people sealed their windows, purchased gas masks, and stocked up on “comet pills” in preparation for the comet’s arrival.

Will we be able to see ISON?

Today most people’s reactions to comets focus on the science behind them and the beautiful show they put on.  I remember waiting to see Halley’s comet in the 80s and Hale-Bop in 1997.  Sadly, what I actually saw did not live up to the hype.  Newspaper and TV reports built both comets up so much that nothing could have lived up to the expectations they created.

Unfortunately, ISON may be overhyped as well.  According to many reports, ISON “could shine as bright as the full moon” and be visible to the naked eye during the day.  However, according to Stuart Atkinson at Waiting for ISON,  saying that ISON will be as bright as the full moon is misleading.  Atkinson points out that shining as bright as a full moon and looking like a full moon are two very different things.  Besides, even if ISON reaches the brightness of a full moon, this will occur when the comet comes in close proximity with the sun, which according to Atkinson will probably outshine it and make it difficult to see.

Wonk wonk…

While expectations for ISON are mostly high, it is unlikely that it will look anything like the red comet in Game of Thrones.  So winter is coming, but that’s just because it’s February, and not because ISON is foretelling it.