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Why Comet Ison is not an epic fail

Who’d be a comet in this era of rolling news coverage and internet commentary?

New Statesman
Another celebrity, comet Hale-Bopp appears in the sky over Merrit Island, Florida in 1997. Photo:Getty.

Who’d be a comet in this era of rolling news coverage and internet commentary? Errant celebrities and under-performing footballers have suffered less criticism, uninformed speculation and unwanted exposure.

The pressure has been on for Comet Ison. After being hailed as the “comet of the century” by various media sources for months, the Huffington Post pulled no punches a few weeks ago, with a headline declaring that the disappointing comet “Fails to dazzle so far”. Even New Scientist had to grit its teeth to get through a period of waning faith: “Until last week, it looked like Ison might be a total dud,” the magazine reported. A couple of weeks ago, the Independent grudgingly acknowledged that things might be looking up: “Comet ISON, the much anticipated ‘comet of the century’, is finally beginning to live up to its reputation.”

Even NASA has been known to trash-talk comets. Remember 2011’s Comet Elenin? Following a spate of predictions that Elenin would be responsible for calamity on Earth, NASA representatives were quick to burst its celebrity bubble. After Elenin disintegrated in the sun’s heat, the “icy dirtball” broke up into a “trail of piffling particles” making an “unexceptional swing” through the inner solar system, according to a NASA expert. It was “gone and should be forgotten”.

They might soon say the same about Ison. Yesterday the comet came within three quarters of a million miles of the sun’s surface, and was exposed to the full force of solar heating. It appeared to break up under the pressure, and the European Space Agency declared it dead. But now it has reappeared, diminished but triumphant, like an icy Obi-Wan. It’s no longer going to be the comet of the century, though.

NASA’s observing campaign for Ison distanced itself from that epithet long ago. The Comet Ison observing campaign has noted that Comet Elenin was “ridiculously over-hyped”, and were determined that their comet shouldn’t suffer the same fate. The tremendous number of observations and science data we have already recorded from Ison means that, even with the fizzled-out hopes, labelling it an epic fail is “particularly harsh” according to the NASA campaign’s site. Scientists only discovered ISON last September, and have scrambled to assemble missions that will photograph and analyse it. Scientists want to study the comet for clues to the conditions in the Oort cloud, a sphere of icy rocks in the outer regions of the solar system. This is where most of the comets we see are thought to originate.

Ison’s final indignity will come thanks to the many scientific instruments in space; there is no danger of the comet escaping unpapped. This week its fate will be caught by no fewer than eight space-based cameras. Out there, no one can hear you scream, but everyone can see you burn bright - or fall apart.