ISON is coming! ISON is coming!
Technically, ISON is here, but I haven’t seen it yet. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be one of those overly hyped astronomical duds like the Kohoutek visit in 1973.
“ISON” is the acronym for the International Scientific Optical Network, where the comet was initially discovered by a team of Russian astronomers. Its official name is “Comet C/2012 S1,” but that doesn’t roll off the tongue so easily.
Over the past few weeks, virtually all telescopes have been pointed in its direction. The latest pictures show a new tail emerging from its bulbous coma. I wouldn’t mind seeing a comet with two tails.
This one might possibly trump any other this layperson has seen in his life. It’s now mid-November and on the 28th, it’ll skim less than two million miles from the sun.
If it survives that brush and doesn’t boil away, it should entertain us throughout the rest of this year, even in the daytime! Of course that’s a huge “if.”
We all remember the spectacular example of gravitational tidal stresses fragmenting Shoemaker-Levy 9 as it approached Jupiter. The train of pieces impacted the planet at 134,000 per hour. Calling Hollywood!
The largest fragment with a diameter of over 2 miles produced a “scar” twice as large as earth. That was a sobering reminder of cosmic possibilities.
One of the weirdest comet connections in my lifetime occurred nearly 20 years ago in California. Thirty-nine members of the “Heaven’s Gate” religious cult committed mass suicide anticipating the arrival of a UFO accompanying the Hale-Bopp comet.
No UFO showed up with the comet and, as far as we know, those deceased members weren’t reincarnated on another planet as they planned. Whew, it even hurts to type such nonsense.
Comets have provided footnotes and exclamation points to our history. One of the brightest comets of the 17th century was the “Great Comet of 1680.”
It’s depicted as the subject of many paintings from that era. Isaac Newton used its orbit as a study in verification of Kepler’s laws of motion. For reasons outside of my ability to understand, some scientists propose that ISON is somehow related to that 1680 comet.
The year 1770 saw the closest recorded passage by earth of a comet, whizzing by only 1.4 million miles distant. Sounds like a long way, but in astronomical terms, it’s close to a fender-bender.
I’ll be stargazing a lot over the next couple of months. Who can resist choosing once-in-a-lifetime sightings instead of watching TV or snoozing with an open mouth?
I’ve always been a science and astronomy nut but have become more interested in the juxtaposition of the vastness of the universe to the smallness of our personal worlds. We’re as much a part of the natural world as we ever were.
I surely don’t wish to return to my caveman roots, clinging to the food-chain ladder and worshiping campfires. But things like comets take our attention away from our tiny personal anthills and point us toward the much larger canvass.
Otis Gardner’s column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.