WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS ABOUT?
At the end of the year there will be a comet in the sky called “ISON” . It has got amateur and professional skywatchers very excited because it MIGHT become very bright. But we have to be very cautious because previous comets have been predicted to become very bright but were disappointingly faint in the end. Astronomers are being very careful not to over-hype this comet in case it does the same, but some people are making outrageous claims about how impressive it could get. Everyone needs to calm down a bit!
I HEARD THAT COMET ISON WILL BE BRIGHTER THAN THE FULL MOON! WOW!!! I CAN’T WAIT TO SEE THAT!
Aaaggghhh!!! You see, this is part of the over-hyping I mentioned. There’s a huge misunderstanding here. When it was discovered initial calculations of its orbit suggested that when the comet was at its closest to the Sun its brightness could have exceeded that of the Moon, yes, but we we were never going to SEE it looking that bright, BECAUSE that was when it will be at its closest to the Sun, and so hidden by its glare. Now we don’t think ISON will get that bright. But there’s still a chance it might just be visible in the daytime, as a misty “spark” close to the Sun, but we’ll only see it if we can block out the brilliant Sun with a building or something. So no, we won’t see a comet blazing in the night sky as bright as the Moon, that’s just rubbish and people need to stop repeating it and giving a false impression.
HOW BRIGHT WILL ISON GET THEN?
We don’t know yet. It’s still a long, long way from the Sun so astronomers can’t accurately predict how it will behave. But they are hopeful it will be easily visible to the naked eye, perhaps with a nice long tail too. It is now visible in large telescopes, and slowly, but surely, getting brighter. But responsible astronomers are being very careful notto build up the public’s expectations too much, because comets which have promised to put on good displays in the past have turned out to be damp squibs, so seriously, everyone just needs to chill out and wait to see what happens.
IS IT TRUE THERE’S ANOTHER COMET IN THE SKY THIS YEAR TOO?
Yes. It’s been quite a year for comets! In March a comet called “PANSTARRS” was visible in the evening sky as seen from the northern hemisphere. It never got very bright, but was a very pretty sight in binoculars and small telescopes. And later this year when ISON is in the sky two others will be keeping it company in the same area of the sky. But in fact, there are dozens of comets visible in the sky each and every night – if you have a telescope and know where to find them!
“ISON” AND “PANSTARRS” ARE STUPID NAMES. WHICH BOFFIN THOUGHT THOSE UP?
No-one thought them up. Comets are traditionally named after their discoverers, and these comets are no different. But they were discovered by robotic telescopes searching the sky, not actual people, so their names sound a bit odd to people, that’s all.
IS COMET ISON GOING TO HIT EARTH?
ARE YOU SURE?
Yes. Now shut up about it.
– BECAUSE I HEARD THAT IT’S A SIGN THAT THE WORLD IS GOING TO END –
Alright, stop right there. If you’re one of those people who believes in Mayan calendar prophesies, Moon Landing hoaxes and crap like that, I don’t even want you reading my blog, ok? I cover all this “End of the World” rubbish on one of this blog’s pages, “We’re all Doomed!”
OKAY, SORRY! WHAT WILL THESE COMETS ACTUALLY LOOK LIKE IN THE SKY?
Again, we just can’t predict that yet with any certainty or accuracy. In 1997 Comet Hale-Bopp caught everyone by surprise with how beautiful it looked – was a lovely sight, with two tails, one curved, beautiful tail, and another straighter one. As for ISON’s appearance, well it depends who you ask. Some experts are predicting that it will have a very, very long tail, stretching across the sky like a searchbeam, or even a very wide, fanned out tail like a peacock’s, but no-one can know that for sure yet. Really, we just have to wait and see.
WHAT WILL I NEED TO SEE ISON AND THE OTHER COMETS?
Well, the charts on this blog will tell you when and where to look for them. Contrary to popular opinion, comets don’t dash across the sky, they drift throught it slowly, moving a little bit each night, so they can be visible for weeks, sometimes months.
As for what you look at them with, well, if they behave themselves, and don’t fizzle out, then just your own eyes will do fine! We should be able to see Comet ISON in the sky in November and December just with our naked eyes, without any help from binoculars or telescopes. But it’s a good idea to have some binoculars handy because they will help you see any subtle details and structure in a comet’s tails your eyes can’t see. Sometimes comet tails have knots or clumps of material in them, or look like they have several different strands, and binoculars are great for seeing those.
As for a telescope, well, they’re useful for spotting very fine, very delicate structure in and around the head of comets, but that’s something only dedicated amateur astronomers or professional astronomers are bothered about. For most people, the comets will look beautiful to the naked eye, and fascinating through binoculars. If you don’t already have a pair, get some soon, don’t leave it to the last minute!
So, in 2013 Comet ISON will be visible in the sky. We know where it will be and when it’ll be there, but we don’t know how bright or how impressive it will be. We’re hopeful that it will be clearly visible to the naked eye, and hopeful too that it may even gropw to become a stunning sight, but we just don’t know that yet, and won’t do for a while. There’s a lot of absolute rubbish being written and talked about Comet ISON in particular, lots of expectations being raised, but people need to just calm down a bit.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t look forward to watching them when they appear… 🙂