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Don't cry for Comet ISON, another stupendous sky show is coming!

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
December 2nd, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

On Thanksgiving morning, I joined tens of thousands of others on a live Google+ Hangout to watch Comet ISON zip past the Sun. After waiting fifteen months, the final, most dangerous part of the journey had arrived. Then, in the space of minutes-disaster. Yet, there is good news.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Comet ISON defied all predictions. When discovered beyond the orbit of Jupiter, it was suggested that it could become the comet of the century, outshining the full moon in broad daylight.

Then, the comet brightened more slowly than predicted. Enthusiasm tempered, but remained high. We learned the comet was of an exceptionally rare variety and that it glowed green rather than white. Weeks before perihelion, it brightened dramatically, almost to naked-eye visibility. Then it dimmed a bit. Then it flared up to naked-eye levels, but approached the sun in the morning sky, making it harder to see.

Finally, just 12 hours before perihelion, ISON flared dramatically. What we know now is that final brightening was the beginning of the end for ISON.

I heard the news live from Philip Plait, also known as the "Bad Astronomer" on Slate.com.  Plait shared the latest processed image from the SOHO satellite, a device in space, pointed at the Sun. Instead of a bright dot followed by a diffuse tail, as a comet should appear, we saw a broad, bright streak, without a head.

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In the minutes that followed the professional consensus came in. Like Icarus, Comet ISON had flown too close to the Sun and broke up. Public disappointment was deep. Instead of a Christmas skyshow, we would be treated now to nothing.

Although later in the day a fragment of the comet was spotted, that too quickly faded, a final remnant of the comet turned to dust by the heat and tidal power of the Sun. Today, comet ISON is simply no more, its ashes scattered to the solar wind.

For astronomers, the breakup was actually a bonus. By studying the light reflected from the particles of dust, blown out from the inside of the busted nucleus, they can gather important data about what the comet was made of, which helps them learn about how our Solar System may have formed.

Yet, the rest of us, ready with merely our eyes or a pair of binoculars, were heartily disappointed. For myself, it felt like the unexpected, last-minute cancellation of a long-anticipated pleasure trip.

In my despair, I began searching for other sky-events worth anticipating. Off the top of my head, I was only aware of disappointment. Even the peak of the current solar cycle, which should have created geomagnetic storms and displays of the northern lights at lower latitudes, at least once, has proven disappointing. What's next?

There's a few things worth paying attention to in the year to come. Notably, the arrival of an enigmatic meteor shower that could have the capability of outperforming anything many people have seen in living memory.

On May 24, 2014, Earth will pass through a very dense stream of dust in space. As comets orbit the Sun, they leave behind trails of dust that continue orbiting in their trail, much like a virtual river of dust in space. When Earth passes through these trails, we get meteor showers. These showers can be predicted in advance and often happen year-after-year.

Next year, we will encounter an entirely new, and fresh trail in space. Particles shed by Comet 209P/LINEAR could create a "meteor storm" particularly for people in North America, who are best situated to view the shower.

Astronomers, if their predictions are accurate, think the meteor shower could create a storm with as many as 100-1,000 meteors per hour. Typically, most meteor showers are merely a few dozen or more per hour in intensity.

This prediction is being made by several astronomers in different countries, working independently of one another.

Another event will be much more mundane, from an Earthly perspective, but it too should make headlines. In September 2014, the Orion space capsule will be launched on its maiden test flight. The capsule will be unmanned but will represent the first test of a craft capable of returning astronauts to the Moon. Over the coming years further test flights are scheduled and the next moon landing could happen in the early 2020s.

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The September launch will be a major news event and will be televised.

The loss of Comet ISON gives astronomers plenty to study. For the rest of us looking forward to amazing sights in the nighttime sky, there will be at least one or more extraordinary events in 2014.

So don't cry for Comet ISON.

A birth foretold: click here to learn more!

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