BBC Sky at Night Magazine
Field of view
It’s almost a quarter of a century since we last saw a bright, showstopper of a comet. When the next one appears, events may pan out a bit like this
When I was standing in the middle of the famous Castlerigg Stone Circle on a chilly April night in 1997, marvelling at the sight of Comet Hale-Bopp’s twin tails shining above the ancient standing stones, if you’d told me I’d still be waiting to see another great comet almost a quarter of a century later
I’d have laughed at you. What a ridiculous idea! But you’d have been right.
Last night I was photographing another comet, T2 PanSTARRS, but to call it a pale imitation of Hale-Bopp would be overly kind. It’s little more than an out of focus, slightly greenish smudge passing the ridiculously pretty spilled jewels of the Double Cluster. I haven’t even seen it with my own eyes yet; it’s too faint to be seen without a telescope under my light-polluted skies.
Despite a few near misses – including Comet ISON, ‘The Comet That Shall Not Be Named’, which cruelly fooled us all into thinking it would be spectacular but fizzled out like a United Kingdom Eurovision Song Contest entry – there have been no decent nakedeye comets for years, and frankly I’m sick of waiting.
But the next great comet is out there, right now, somewhere, just waiting to be found.
It will first appear on a survey image as a tiny
smudge, sandwiched between scratched Starlink
trails. Nothing special at first glance, but after it has
been observed for a few nights, crunching its orbital numbers will reveal it is destined to be ‘The Next Hale-Bopp’ in a year or so’s time. And then, in our modern age ruled by the internet and social media, when it shines in our sky, astronomers, the media and the public will all go a bit, well… nuts.
By the time it is bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, the comet – let’s call it Comet Jess – will already be all over the internet. There will be countless Facebook pages and groups dedicated to it, and it will have its own hilarious Twitter account too. Despite astronomers’ reassurances that it will miss us by many millions of kilometres, YouTube will already be groaning under the weight of nut
job videos predicting Comet Jess will shower Earth with lethal alien microbes, knock Earth out of its
orbit or simply smash into us, killing everything on it. And, of course, the Nibiru disciples will declare they were right all along…
But none of that will matter, because when Comet Jess is hanging there in the evening twilight, its long
tails streaming across the sky like pennants flying
from the turret of a medieval castle, comet fever will take hold of the world. Astronomical societies will organise ‘Comet Watch’ evenings, attended by huge crowds; every day thousands more images of the comet will be posted online, many taken by smartphone cameras better than Hale-Bopp era SLRs; people will stop and stare at it from supermarket car parks and outside pubs. Crowds will gather in parks, country laybys and school
playing fields to marvel at the beautiful sight in the
sky. It will be on every TV weather report, in every newspaper and on more websites than a picture of a sleepy kitten falling off a sofa.
I can’t wait.