Comet Ison Taught Me A Lot

743538main_image001_0As a meteorologist on TV I was often called on to be a science generalist. From earthquakes to volcanoes to comets, I had to know enough get on the air and provide context. It was a part of the job I relished.

Comets appeared from time-to-time, allowing me to get some shaved ice and dirt and give a quick lesson. There are not many people who get the opportunity to teach science on TV. It was an honor.

What I knew would not have been enough for Comet Ison. This comet was unusual. I learned a lot.

Astronomers first caught sight of Ison in September 2012 when was 585 million miles away. Even at that distance it was bright enough to hint at big things ahead.

Automated spotting programs make comet discoveries easier. Computers look for objects that are moving while the rest of the star field stays relatively in place.

By October a paper delivered to the American Astronomical Society’s 45th Annual Division for Planetary Sciences meeting noted Comet Ison was rotating in such a way that only one side was getting heated by the Sun and it was already spurting water ice into space.

Comet Ison is/was a sungrazer. Sungrazer’s are comets which get close enough to the Sun to be intensely affected by its gravity and heat. We’d never spotted a sungrazer so far out. Probably from the Oort Cloud, this was Ison’s first trip to the rodeo.

Until Ison, all the comets I’d talked about stayed far enough away from the Sun and had ‘visited’ this part of the solar system often enough that they weren’t in peril. This one was headed inside the Roche limit.

The Roche limit, sometimes referred to as the Roche radius, is the distance within which a celestial body, held together only by its own gravity, will disintegrate due to a second celestial body’s tidal forces exceeding the first body’s gravitational self-attraction. – Wikipedia

So, if Ison was a mass of rocks, pebbles and dirt held together by ice and its own internal gravity, the Sun would probably break it apart. That’s what happened. If Ison was an asteroid or some other giant space boulder we’d probably be looking at it still. Whatever does exist today is a small fraction of its former self.

I know this now. I didn’t know this a week ago or when I was talking about much colder comets on TV.

We see comets and their signature tail because heat (usually not very much heat) allows ice to melt which in turn allows gases to vent and dust to be set free. A comet’s tail is blown by the solar wind, a field of energy blasted into space from the Sun. The tail points away from the Sun and has no relation to the direction the comet is actually moving.

If all the ice has melted and the nucleus disintegrated there’s nothing left to view. That seems to be the case. There will be no “Comet of the Century” in the December sky.

We’re very lucky it’s 2013. There are a few satellites, some far from Earth, specifically designed to monitor activity like this. They provided amazing images as Ison whipped its way around the Sun and back toward deep space.

Over the next few months, as astronomers and other specialists look at the tsunami of data produced, we’ll learn more. It’s likely we’ll find Ison’s exact makeup and what caused its demise. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some animations simulating Ison’s final interactions with the Sun.

This comet was a tease. We were told it could be the big one. Obviously, it was not.

It wasn’t a disappointment to me. My knowledge has expanded. I might have been a terrible student as a kid, but grown-up Geoff loves to learn.

Over the last few weeks I’ve heard a lot of those in the know compare comets to cats. The both have tails and they both do what they want to do.

Ciao, Ison.

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