From the Director

Jeff Bernardis, Director

I remember sitting in science class in grade school learning about Halley’s Comet, thinking that it was cool – that it was something I’d be able to see in my lifetime. Its last appearance was in 1910, and its next appearance in 1986 was only a few years away. The way it was presented in the textbooks and in artwork, it looked like we were going to see something spectacular.

Halley’s Comet was the one comet that everybody knew by name. It is unique in the impact it has played in human history. Sightings have been chronicled back to more than 200 years before Christ. It is the only known comet that one can see twice in a lifetime.

Comet Hale-Bopp. Photo credit: NASA

Comet Hale-Bopp. Photo credit: NASA

Of course, despite all of that buildup and anticipation in 1986, Halley’s Comet was a dud. I do remember seeing it. I even had the opportunity to observe it through a good telescope, but it was rather underwhelming (as was comet Kohoutek 13 years earlier).

Then in 1997, quite unexpectedly, two independent amateur astronomers – Alan Hale in New Mexico, and Thomas Bopp in Arizona -simultaneously noticed a fuzzy but moving object in view while they were looking at M20. They reported their findings and were both given credit for the discovery of comet Hale-Bopp.

This was going to be the big one. It was billed as being 1000 times as bright as Halley’s comet. And of course it did not disappoint. It was a fascinating display. It seemed to go on forever, night after night. It was the event that rekindled my interest in astronomy.

At the beginning of 2013, there was mention of two comets that were approaching the earth in this year. Some publications even labeled 2013 as “The Year of the Comet”. Comet Pan-STARRS would be in the March timeframe and Comet ISON would be visible later in the year in November and December.

In March we did see comet Pan-STARRS. From our vantage point, it was very low on the horizon and very underwhelming. We were warned though. It was not going to be all that spectacular.

However, if what everyone is saying turns out to be true, ISON will be a different story completely. In late November it will be at perihelion, zooming past the sun at greater that 400,000 mph at a distance of ~800,000 miles. After perihelion, on about December 26, it is expected to pass over the northern hemisphere at a distance of about 40,000,000 miles. The comet is estimated to be about three miles in diameter, and although there is some concern about what will survive such a close perihelion, expectations are that the comet will be brighter than the moon. It is also labeled “the brightest comet to grace the skies in memory”. This, of course, implies that it is expected to be brighter than Hale-Bopp, and based on my memory, that’s quite a statement.

Of course we’ve been disappointed before, and anything can happen between now and the comet’s appearance, but I am anticipating a great show. Let’s hope it lives up to the hype. Let’s also hope that, like me with Hale-Bopp, the comet will spark interest in astronomy, and perhaps even contribute to the growth of the club.

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This entry was posted in Mid-Summer 2013, Sidereal Times and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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