October 21, 2017

24.03.11: Comet Elenin: A Great Show, But No Need for Bruce Willis.

The path of Comet Elenin through the inner solar system. (Created using the NASA/JPL Ephemeris Generator).

There’s a scene in the otherwise fairly decent 1990’s disaster flick Deep Impact where the President played by Morgan Freeman reveals that a cover-up has been ongoing for about a year to keep an impending inbound doomsday comet a secret. Such drama makes most backyard observers chuckle inside; we know that on any given night, legions of observers are looking skyward, hoping to find a body that could immortalize our efforts. By day and on cloudy evenings, we’re at our keyboards, sharing data and computing orbits. Our tools are homemade observatories, sometimes housing instruments that would make some universities blush. It’s extremely unlikely that the “Big One” would slip by the worldwide astronomical community. That’s why I got a brief chortle this morning out of a message board post suggesting that one only need conduct a brief (insert favorite search engine here) scouting of the ‘Net for C/2010 X1 Elenin. The name was familiar to me and observers everywhere; This comet may put on the summer’s best show of the year as it passes perihelion on September 10th at 0.45 A.U. from the Sun and moves into the predawn sky, well positioned for northern hemisphere viewers. Then, in October, Elenin will pass within 0.3 A.U. (about 28 million miles, or 112 lunar distances) from the Earth… Yes, Elenin will probably put on a fairly decent show. One key indicator for this is that it was first spied about 4 A.U. from the Sun; this means that it’s fairly large and intrinsically bright, much like Hale-Bopp. The geometry of the pass is also very similar to the passage of comet McNaught in 2007, which means we may be in for a decent show as Elenin unfurls its dust tail on its way out of the inner solar system. But let’s just dispel some of the gathering Woo out there and state that there is ZERO chance that Elenin will impact the Earth. This is just one cosmic cat that even the likes of Morgan Freeman couldn’t keep in the bag. And no, myself and the legions of astronomers behind me are NOT in cahoots with Big Brother in hushing things up, as we have yet to receive one single pay off, and do our debunking on a pro bono basis.  And, much like comet Halley in 1910, Elenin will unfurl its tail in our direction, but remember, a cometary tail is mostly composed of… nothing! We’re talking a vacuum many orders of magnitude better than what can be done in a laboratory. Yes, nasties such as cyanide have been detected in the spectra of comets, but we aren’t due for a cyanogen bath this summer. Will Elenin sprout the hysteria seen in 1910? You’d think we’d have learned in a centuries time… but as Mark Twain once said, “A lie can travel ‘round the world while the truth is just puttin’ on its shoes…” and that paradigm is never more true than in today’s wired-in world. At very least, “Comet Pills” may be only an E-bay order away this time…


Flashback: Remembering the Great Comet of 1910.

The "other" comet in 1910...(Credit: Lowell Observatory).
The “other” comet in 1910…(Credit: Lowell Observatory).
1910 was a heady year both in astronomy and the world at large. The nationalism that would lead to World War I was still fermenting in Europe; the radio was the hot new IPod of the age, and silent movies were yet to be replaced by “talkies” over a decade away. In astronomy, astrophotography was in its infancy, and Edwin Hubble  had yet to make his landmark discovery that would expand our known universe beyond our own Milky Way galaxy… and the public and scientists alike eagerly awaited the close perihelion passage of Halley’s Comet in April. [Read more...]

2012: Don’t Believe the Hype.

I was recently at a waiting room the other day, when the secretary noticed that I had brought a copy of Death From the Skies! to “kill” time. “Is that stuff true?” she asked. I mentioned that yes, sooner or later, a killer space rock may well have our species collective name on it. I knew what was coming next. “I mean, I like saw this documentary on the Discovery channel about how the world is supposed to end in 2012…”

Every generation enjoys its own Apocalypse, and for better or worse, 2012 is ours. [Read more...]

See the Orionid Meteor Shower at its Peak.

Meteor season is now well underway. About midway between the August Perseids and the November Leonids is an often over-looked shower; the Orionids. The good news this year is the Orionids occur around the morning of October 21st, when the light-polluting moon is only three days past new and thus safely out of the morning sky. Expect to see up to 20-30 fast moving meteors, as was generally the reported case last year. For best results, be sure to watch several hours before dawn, or about 2-5 PM local.

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AstroEvent of the Week: October 20th-26th, 2008. The Orionid Meteors.

Brace yourselves… meteor season is now well underway. Fresh off the tail of the elusive Draconids early this month comes the Orionids, a decent shower emanating from the shoulder of Orion, near the star Betelgeuse. This shower is due to peak the morning of October 22nd, producing several swift meteors.

[Read more...]