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Frank Gray

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Comet ISON will be, or maybe won’t be, spectacular

A little more than a year ago, a couple of Russian astronomers discovered a small comet, streaking along in the vicinity of Saturn, headed straight for the sun.

It wasn’t long before astronomer types were saying comet ISON could be the comet of the century, which, when you consider the century is only 12 years old, isn’t saying much.

But I was excited to hear about this. All my life, I’ve been hearing about great comets that appeared through history, about Halley’s comet, and I’ve gotten caught up in the hubbub of newly discovered comets that were supposed to be spectacular.

And almost every one of them has been a dud.

Kohoutek back in the 1970s was supposed to be a doozy, but it was a bust. As I recall, some people theorized that maybe it was covered with something sticky that prevented it from developing a striking tail. Anyway, the only glimpse I got of it was a faint white swipe in the early-evening sky, and I’m still not sure I wasn’t looking at a jet flying high overhead.

I never did get to see Halley’s comet. Maybe that was because of light pollution or because I was working when it was visible. It doesn’t matter. I’ll get another chance to see it in 2062.

There was Hale-Bopp in 1997, which I got to see, but it didn’t generate a gigantic tail like the ones I had always read about.

Now comes comet ISON, a newcomer that some say wandered out of the Oort cloud like some young basset hound, entered the solar system and started heading straight for the sun.

The Oort cloud, by the way, is supposed to be this cloud of comets billions of years old floating trillions of miles out in space on the edge of the solar system.

It’s fascinating to ponder that some comet that has spent billions of years in near-absolute zero temperatures is wandering into our neighborhood.

I’m not sure whether this is Mother Nature once again trying to redeem herself by putting on a good show for me or another chance for her to build me up and then let me down.

Starting this weekend, I’ll get to find out. The comet, which is relatively small by most standards, suddenly brightened, according to SpaceWeather.com, a website run by NASA, and you can actually see it with the naked eye.

The comet is supposed to come within less than a million miles of the sun, boomerang around it and zip back in the direction whence it came, so there is a chance it could put on quite a show.

The problem is, it’s going to be relatively low on the eastern horizon before dawn, and it’s fairly dim, so viewing it in a metropolitan area with all of its light pollution will be difficult.

I called the Fort Wayne Astronomical Society to ask whether it planned any viewing events. The society has public viewings in the spring, summer and early fall, but those stop in November.

The society does allow people to hold stargazing parties at its new home in Jefferson Township Park on Dawkins Road, east of New Haven. It’s a good location with no trees, a low horizon and no light from the east.

Arranging stargazing parties at 5:30 a.m. isn’t going to happen, I’m told. So if I want to see the comet that badly, I’ll have to wander out there by myself before dawn and look to the east.

I’m no longer at the age where I can stay up until 5 a.m., but I have reached that point where I wake up at 5 a.m., so if I’m in the mood for a letdown, maybe I’ll head out there.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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