Que the dramatic post title. Really we’re sorry, but it’s true. Big time astronomical events like solar eclipses. planetary alignments, and comets only come around every once and a while. I’m willing to bet you remember some of the more memorable ones (Haley’s comet, anyone?) and the experience you had checking it out. Space, astronomy for that matter, is mesmerizing in many ways. How quickly you can go from feeling big to small, with just one single thought about the relative size of earth in our solar system, and the relative size of our solar system in space. Recently, big time astronomical events have generally avoided the New York City Area (no solar eclipses in several years). That being said, if all goes well, 2013 could bring an astronomical event of a lifetime that will be remembered forever.
The Oort cloud is a cluster of frozen rock and ice that sits in space some 50,000 times farther away from the sun than earth does. What does that have to do with us, you ask? It holds the secret to our potential 2013 event. Every once and a while, a frozen rock will be “bumped” from the suns gravitational pull, out of the Oort cloud. It will then begin a long journey of orbit around the sun, just like any other rock or planet.
That’s where Comet ISON comes in. Last September 21st, two Russian astronomers spotted what looked like a comet in their 16-inch telescope. The name, ISON, comes from the name of the network which provided the telescope which enabled the astronomers to view the comet, the International Scientific Optical Network (or ISON). After some further work and analysis, the researchers were able to confirm that comet ISON would, in fact, pass fairly close to Earth in 2013. It’s path, remarkably, is similar to a comet which passed near Earth in 1680. Records from that comets passage reported a brightness so dramatic that its tail could be seen in broad daylight.
Scientists suggest that as Comet ISON approaches, and the sun vaporizes the ices in its body, a spectacular sight — including a bright burning comet and tail — will be visible from Earth’s night sky with the naked eye. Even more exciting is that the event could last from October 2013 through January 2014. “Comet ISON could be the brightest comet seen in many generations – brighter even than the full moon,” wrote British astronomer David Whitehouse in The Independent.
It’s not all locked in place, though. Comet ISON will be vaporized as it approaches the sun, that much we know. If it breaks apart as it does so, the show will be far less dramatic than expected. I think its safe to say that we will all be watching carefully. The last comet to pass brightly near Earth was Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997.