An Ode to ISON, and the Ghosts of Comets Past

There are several Comet ISON blogs I've seen written by amateur and professional astronomers, and I'll probably end up mentioning several of them at some point or another. But first on the list is Stuart Atkinson's Waiting for ISON blog, which I've been following for a couple of months now. It's full of well-written content that I encourage you to peruse at your leisure, but for now I'm just going to share one thing from his blog that's a little... different... for an astronomy/science website: poetry!

Waiting for ISON (Stuart Atkinson, 2013)
There you are – a faint, fuzzy star
Camouflaged by the crushed diamond dust
Sprinkled between Castor and Pollux.
Not much to look at now, it’s true,
But before year’s end, you promise us,
You will blossom and bloom, unfurling
Your Camelot banner tail across our frosty
Northern skies as you whip around the Sun…

Please don’t let us down.
We’ve waited for you for so long;
Dreamed so many dreams of you;
Wished on so many shooting stars for you;
Imagined you lighting up our sky since childhood;
Sighed for oh so many years at the sight
Of paintings showing those that came before you
Burning bright on nineteenth century nights,
Their searchlight tails sprayed across the heavens,
Princes and peasants alike staring up at you
With wide-with-wonder eyes,
Unable to believe what they were seeing,
Some no doubt screaming “Begone! Flee!
Leave us be!”

Others like you have promised us the world,
Reached out from across the Great Black
To fill our hungry hearts with hope,
Only to leave us standing in the dark alone,
Glaring at another empty sky,
Shaking our fists at the universe for lying
To us again, playing us for fools again,
Shattering our dreams and making us feel
Stupid again…

Oh please, don’t be lying to us,
Don’t leave us standing at astronomy’s altar in tears.
We want to gather on our school playing fields,
Hilltops and harbour-sides, watching you rise
In glory from behind bare-limbed trees.
We want to park our cars in crowded lay-bys and stand
With strangers, marvelling at the sight of you
Stretched across the purple-hued twilight
Like God’s own Maglite beam.
We want to hear people standing in line
At bus-stops and post offices describing
How they saw you walking home, or walking the dog,
Or weaving their way back from the pub,
“And it was beautiful…”

We want to walk along the shore, hand in hand,
To stand at the waves’ foaming edge and whisper
“Look at that…!” as your tail paints
A mother of pearl rainbow across the sky.
We want to walk out into our gardens at dawn,
In our Christmas slippers and cat hair matted dressing gowns
And see you shining above our sheds,
Long tail stretched above our heads, feeling small,
Banishing The Ghost of Kohoutek Past
Once and for all…

So please, don’t let us down, oh please
Don’t let us down. Not again.
Don’t make future generations snarl
As they say your name; don’t make us hate you
When you’ve gone, cursing bitter memories of you.
Put on a celestial circus show for us!
Thrill us as you fly around our star,
Make us want to weep at your beauty as you leap
Over Sol’s flickering flames to hang above
Our cities and towns, briefly looking down
On our warring, weary world like an angel
Before flying away again, leaving us behind,
Leaving us with a thousand Facebook photographs
And a trillion breathless Tweets to remember you by…

© Stuart Atkinson 2013 (posted with permission)

Very nice, Stuart! I'm sure all of my fellow CIOC-ers hope to indeed "banish the ghost of Kohoutek past" (though I know at least a few of us weren't even born then)!

C/1973 E1 (Kohoutek) -- a huge let-down? Looks kinda pretty to me... [image credit: Palomar Observatory]
For those that don't understand that reference, Comet C/1973 E1 (Kohoutek) was a much-hyped comet that dramatically underperformed. It was well-publicized by the astronomy community and the media as potentially being "The Comet of the Century" (sound familiar?) when it passed by the Sun in late 1973. However, partial disintegration and a fainter-than-predicted passage led to a lot of heartbreak among astronomers, and criticism and jeering from the public and media. Interestingly though, it actually wasn't that bad as comets go. It still reached magnitude -3 at perihelion (it would have been visible in the SOHO/LASCO images had they been around at that time) and was visible for a short time in evening skies after perihelion. Comet Kohoutek was, at the time, thought to be a dynamically new Oort Cloud comet (again, sound familiar?) but subsequently turned out to likely be a Kuiper Belt Object.

So is it valid to compare ISON to Kohoutek? Not really, in my opinion. It seems that ISON genuinely is fresh in from the Oort Cloud, and unlike Kohoutek has never been exposed to solar radiation in the inner solar system. Also, ISON will be more than ten times closer to the Sun that Kohoutek was. That'll make a big difference. And finally I think you can legitimately argue that our instrumentation, understanding of comets, and predictive capabilities, are at least somewhat improved from forty years ago. This guarantees nothing, but at least stacks the odds a little more in our favor. But only time will tell...

Keep up-to-date on the latest ISON and sungrazing comet news via my @SungrazerComets Twitter feed. All opinions stated on there, and in my blog posts, are my own.