Late Winter, 1997, just before moving from Boston to Minnesota, was very snowy out east. And, that year I had stupidly agreed to shovel the snow for our apartment building in exchange for a pittance of some kind. One night I was shoveling the latest 7 inch storm off the walk, and the father of our upstairs neighbor came out to look at the weather, the snow, and the sky. Our neighbors were Russian, and had been in the US for only a year, and their dad may or may not have been a refugee of some sort. He was wearing his big Russian hat and his big Russian coat and he knew almost no English. Noticing him looking around, I stood up and said hello. He grunted something. Then, I pointed up the street, and up in the sky. There, hovering over the Somverville Massachusetts cityscape was Comet Hale-Bopp, bright, curving, strange looking, hovering in the night sky. He turned his gaze and looked at the comet for a moment, then looked back at me, shaking his head in awe.
“America…,” was his only comment.
He then returned to the warmth of his apartment. I continued to shovel snow for the next couple of hours.
Well, we have a new comet, and it is named ISON (full name, C/2012 S1). ISON was spotted by the International Scientific Optical Network in Russia. There are two important things to know about ISON. First, as far as can be estimated so far (and this is subject to correction) the comet will pass very close to the sun. Since comets look really cool when they get close to the sun, it is possible that ISON will be spectacular. It is possible, and again this is subject to correction, that ISON will be one of the biggies…super bright, brighter than the moon, all that. The other important thing is that astronomers think ISON is a newcomer, a chunk of distant stuff that is falling out of the ort cloud for the first time. For this reason, its behavior and even its basic physical properties are unkown and hard to predict, and since this would be the first time it will ever be close enough to a star to seriously interact with it other than a bit of gravitational tugging, you never know what can happen. It might vaporize (mostly) on the way into the inner solar system and not put on much of a show at all.
The expected period of spectacular cometary display…or lack thereof… is Fall 2013. Plenty of time to build your own star tracker so you can take a picture of it.
ISON is unlikely to strike the earth and cause a mass extinction. However, it is very likely that one or more cults will form associated with the comet, and they’ll be doing crazy stuff, like trying to get on board. We can only hope they don’t harm themselves in so doing.