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Sunday, December 23, 2012
2013: The Year of the Comets
Some ancient cultures referred to them as “the Menace of the Universe” and “the Harbinger of Doom.” Comets have almost universally been viewed by the ancients as messengers or omens carrying bad news from the gods.
In the midst of our busy lives it’s difficult to keep in mind that we reside on a ball that’s corkscrewing through space around a ball of gas called our sun, which is also sweeping through our galaxy.
The ancients didn’t have distractions like TVs and the Internet. They looked to the sky for clues and guidance for life on Earth, and comets brought mythology of angry gods and instilled fear in them.
Strangely, in more modern times, comets have been associated with actual dark events.
Comets’ influence on cultures is not limited simply to tales of myth and legend, though. Comets throughout history have been blamed for some of history’s darkest times. In Switzerland, Halley’s Comet was blamed for earthquakes, illnesses, red rain, and even the births of two-headed animals. The Romans recorded that a fiery comet marked the assassination of Julius Caesar, and another was blamed for the extreme bloodshed during the battle between Pompey and Caesar. In England, Halley’s Comet was blamed for bringing the Black Death. The Incas, in South America, even record a comet having foreshadowed Francisco Pizarro’s arrival just days before he brutally conquered them.
Comets and disaster became so intertwined that Pope Calixtus III even excommunicated Halley’s Comet as an instrument of the devil, and a meteorite, from a comet, became enshrined as one of the most venerated objects in all of Islam.
Although comets are not uncommon in our solar system, Great Comets only appear once a decade on average . There’s is no major significance about the size of “Great Comets“, rather they are simply defined as comets that become exceptionally bright and can be seen by casual observers with the naked eye. This usually has to do with their distance from Earth.
So what are we to make of the possibility of two Great Comets flying by Earth in 2013?
Astronomers have discovered two new comets that are fast approaching our planet and have the potential to be Great Comets. One might be “bright enough to be seen in the day” and the other is projected to become “one of the brightest in history” and possibly “outshine the Moon“.
The first comet, named C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS), is expected to make its arrival in March 2013. According to astronomers, it will be “potentially visible to the naked eye low in the western horizon just after sunset” and also has the “potential that it may be visible during the day.”
Richard Wainscoat, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii who co-discovered the comet, claims there is no danger of collision with Earth but admits “since we don’t have a lot of data on it, we really don’t know the orbit well enough right now.”
The second comet, the one which could possibly outshine the Moon, was only just discovered this September and is called 2012 S1 (ISON). Astronomers predict “current orbital predictions indicate the comet will look brightest to us in the weeks just after its closest approach to the sun, on November 28, 2013.”
Comet ISON may be visible for the last two months of the year as well as early 2014 and is the more likely of the two to be a spectacular event:
The comet is already remarkably bright, given how far it is from the sun, astronomer Raminder Singh Samra said. What’s more, 2012 S1 seems to be following the path of the Great Comet of 1680, considered one of the most spectacular ever seen from Earth.
This comet is considered to be larger than most at 3 kilometers wide (roughly 2 miles) adding to the anticipation of its arrival. It, too, may be visible during the day according to astronomers.
The last Great Comet highly visible from Earth, Hale-Bopp, arrived 16 years ago in 1997. So we are long overdue considering the average of one-per-decade. Although very little major news occurred in 1997, the last 16 years have been perhaps the most tumultuous in human history from 9/11 and the war on terror to a devastating financial collapse, both of which have still not peaked.
Astronomers are cautious not to make wild predictions about approaching comets, always adding the caveat that they never really know how comets will react as they get closer to the sun. Yet, it does seem significant that 2013 may have two Great Comets.
Will one of them be a “Harbinger of Doom” and bring dark times with it? As the world braces for the end of the much discussed Mayan Calendar on December 21st, 2012, these comets only add more intrigue to cosmic conspiracies.
The authorities and media downplay “end of the world” talk which is probably the responsible thing to do to stave off panic. However, it’s increasingly difficult to know where to find the truth. And NASA isn’t exactly known for its honesty either, sometimes being referred to as “Never AStraight Answer”.
Even if we won’t get a straight answer from NASA, we should heed the advice they gave to their staff to be prepared to survive potential emergencies:
A major initiative has been placed on Family/Personal Preparedness for all NASA personnel. The NASA/Family Preparedness Program is designed to provide awareness, resources, and tools to the NASA Family (civil servants and contractors) to prepare for an emergency situation. The most important assets in the successful completion of NASA’s mission are our employees’ and their families. We are taking the steps to prepare our workforce, but it is your personal obligation to prepare yourself and your families for emergencies. (Source)