WRITTEN BY STUART ATKINSON
We’re ALL waiting for Comet ISON to appear in the sky in a couple of months time (if you have a big telescope you can actually see it now), but there is a LOT of rubbish being talked and written about it, so I decided to write a blog without all that stuff, to tell people what we will, and might, see at the end of 2013…!
My main interest is Mars, but I’m fascinated by comets too. I have some great (and some not so great!!) memories of comet-observing. Back in 1985, after reading about it and waiting to see it since childhood, I finally had my first glimpse of Halley’s Comet on Bonfire Night (Nov 5th), standing in the middle of a sports field, with the smell of bonfire and fireworks smoke hanging in the air. It was only a tiny, fuzzy, out of focus ‘star’ in my binoculars but when I saw it for the first time it was an incredible experience. Halley never got particularly bright from the UK, but I watched it until the end of the following April, and was very sad to see it go, as I’m pretty sure I won’t still be around when it comes back in 2061…
My next “big” comet was Comet Hyakutake, which took everyone by surprise in 1996 when it spread its long, loooong pale green tail across the sky like a banner. As I stood in the dakness of the countryside watching that, tracing the ridiculous length of its tail, I thought it was the best comet I would ever see –
Then came Hale-Bopp!
Hale-Bopp is the modern comet most people remember best, because it was in the sky for what seemed like years (actually just a couple of months), was very bright (you couldn’t miss it in the sky, it was so bright), and had two very prominent tails. I watched Hale-Bopp grow from a tiny smudge in binoculars to a great shining V-sign in the sky in Spring 1997, and it was incredible. I watched it from my light-polluted garden, from the dark Cumbrian countryside, and even from the centre of an ancient stone circle. I took many, many photographs of it – all on slides. I really will have to get those scanned one day…
Other comets have delighted me too. A few years ago, Comet Holmes increased in brightness explosively after undergoing some kind of “outburst”, and it leapt from telescope brightness to naked eye brightness almost overnight, and I watched it from my backyard.
The two most beautiful comets of recent times were both, sadly, hidden from my view as they were at their best and most active in the southern hemisphere’s sky. Comet McNaught had a tail that fanned across the sky like a peacock’s tail, but I never saw it like that, I just had a brie glimpse of it as a short, stub of light in a gap in the clouds on a typically wet and windy Cumbrian evening. And as for Comet Lovejoy, which rounded the Sun and srivived to put on a dazzling dislay in the southern sky, I only ever saw photographs of that.
So when I heard last year that a new comet, Comet PANSTARRS, was going to be visible in the northern sky in March 2013 I thought “Yes” Our turn!” Soon after that another comet, ISON, was discovered, and calculations showed it might – MIGHT – become very bright in the northern sky at the end of 2013. Some suggested it might “just” be as bright as Hale-Bopp, while others suggested it would be many, many times brighter, perhaps even brighter than the Full Moon and clearly visible in daylight! We have since worked out that it won’t get as bright as that, but there’s still a good chance it will be a very nice naked eye object by December. Of course, any predictions relating to comets and their brightnesses are just guesswork. We can’t really know in advance how bright ANY comet will get in, as comets are infamously and notoriously unpredictable and unreliable. I think it was American astronomer and writer David Levy who pointed out that comets are like cats – they have a tail, and do whatever they want. That just about sums them up!
So… the bottom line… there MIGHT be something lovely just around the celestial corner – a naked eye comet – or there might be a crushing disappointment waiting in the wings. But it makes sense to prepare and look ahead now, and I hope this blog, and these charts, will help people do that. As the story of the comet debelops, and we get a clearer idea of just how amazing it will – or won’t – be I’ll write about that here too.
By the way, important to say that these charts are for observers living in the northern hemisphere, specifically at mid- to high latitudes, because that’s where I live. If you live too far away from that area, they probably won’t be much use to you. But if you have access to an astronomy planetarium program you can easily generate your own charts. And Android phone users can download the SKY SAFARI app which already has Comet ISON in its database.
I hope you enjoy my blog, and have a good view of Comet ISON when it arrives in your sky, wherever you are.
My Homepage: Stuart Atkinson Homepage
My other blogs – take a look…
Cumbrian Sky my main astronomy blog
The Road To Endeavour following the Mars Exploration Rover “Opportunity”
The Gale Gazette following the Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity”
Astropoetry my poetry inspired by astronomy and space exploration