Well, gee whillikers, circle late November and early December 2013. The brightest most spectacular comet ever, as in ever, heading our way. There are real news stories along that general line, the good ones are full of caution. The summary in this post's first sentence is not inspired by one of the good ones.
I shall of course start with the one that's over the top. I've posted briefly on the combo of morass of dross and delightfully surprisingly news that is plopped upon one's digital plate at a popular iPad app called Zite. It calls itself a magazine. It appears to assemble content, according to a subscribers selected interests, robotic algorithmic magic. I'd been reading in recent days of comet C/2012 s1, aka ISON (for Int'l Scientific Optical Nework in Russia) now still far away as potentially naked-eye comets go but lookin' pretty good in telescopes. I'll get to what some real reporters have done. But my motor for doing things started up last night after my personalized Zite magazine tendered this:
- Reallycoolblog.com – The most spectacular comet sighting ever, coming soon! ;
Read it if you like. It is a smooth confection. Lots of sugar, no nourishment to ease the guilt. No sources of information. Nothing that passes as fact except in the most generalized sense. Nearly all superlatives with scant qualification on this comet's superstar destiny. The item is utterly sophomoric. That is no metaphor. This Zite thing, its filters and metrics scanning the web like some zombie fast-trading stock trader machine on today's digital Wall Street, boinged on the blog of a Maryland college sophomore who – and I'm sure the young man is going far with charm and energy and rascality aplenty – lists his interests as "astronomy, science, international relations, and political philosophy."
Yikes and once more in chorus: Oh news industry of my youth, where hath thou gone? I'm talking about gate-keeping here. When one examines Zite's page the eye falls on this self-plug: Selected by Apple as #1 News App of 2011. News as in news agency? My foot. I'll keep reading it as I am so smugly confident of my ability to tell the sublime from the sub-lemons. Today's issue of Zite, resonding to my "astronomy" search setting, also presents stories from the NYTimes, Wired, NASA p.r., and one hefty item in Spectrum IEEE – a report on cosmological structure and dark matter modeling that voluble University of California Santa Cruz cosmologist Joel Primack wrote. Zite has its treasures. Plus plenty of fools gold. Reader beware.
THE REAL COMET NEWS:
Last month two astronomers from Russian and Belarus reported seeing a faint fuzz ball, now Comet C/2012 S1, about a billion kilometers (around 600 million miles) away. That's beyond the distance to Jupiter but a bit short of Saturn. It's about where comet Kahoutek, the supposed comet of the 20th century, appeared similarly bright in 1973, was touted as a sure naked-eye spectacle following extrapolation of the way it looked way out there to what it should look like just before and after rounding the sun, and it triggered lots of star parties just to watch. Professional astronomers with big mirrors and spectrographs loved it – it presented the first proof of water molecules in a comet's tail. As crowd pleaser it was a dud.
At LiveScience on September 30 a report by space.com's Joe Rao may have encouraged other media exaggerate what can be said already of the new one's destiny. His lede said first it has the "potential to put on a dazzling display late next year" and then moves immediately to add that "it will be so bright you may be able to see it briefly in the daytime sky." That is a vivid image. It blows the qualifiers right off the page. Rao adds that its orbit appears to resemble that of one of history's famous members of this breed, the Great Comet of 1680 – seen in the German engraving up top. Perhaps it is the same comet, he adds. A quick look around reveals that outlets covered this tentative news of the inner solar system's pending visitor with a wide range of caution. It is difficult to suppress enthusiasm when a super-bright comet appears maybe possibly to be coming. Harken to Kahoutek's transformation to Kahouflop.
- NBC-Cosmic Log – Alan Boyle: Super-comet or super-dud? We'll see ; Boyle, a veteran of space news coverage, will go berserk if this things lives up to its maximal possibilities. He is too smart to go there yet.
- National Geographic News – Andrew Fazekas: New Comet Discovered – May Become "One of Brightest in History" / Next year comet 2012 S1 might outshine the moon ; At least the first word in the story is if. The last words are "only time will tell."
- Discovery News – Ian O'Neill: New Comet Discovered — Will It Be Spectacular? Nice job – second paragraph, after a lede on the speculation that we could get an eye-popping sky show, is "On the other hand, it might not. Confused? Well, that's comets for you."
- Universe Today – Nancy Atkinson : New 'Sun-Skirting' Comet Could Provide Dazzling Display in 2013 ; Solid job for comet fans, with links to animations of the orbit and photos by an Italian observatory team. Do not miss at Atkinson's blog a guest post from an English astronomy enthusiast on the genesis and coverage of this news.
One predication that few should doubt: Doomsday scenarios from the fringe crowd.
– Charlie Petit