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  Comets -
  What's the big deal?

Look up the history of comets and what do you find? Stories about great bands of light stretching from one horizon to the other, visible even in full daylight and terrifying the life out of everyone who sees them.
   Get on the Internet and look up the subject and you can retrieve more pictures than you can shake a stick at. Comets are whizzing into and out of our part of the Solar System in vast numbers. The only problem is that they rarely put on much of a show.

Take some of the recent ones:

1973 •   Comet Kohoutek – It got a lot of coverage in the news media while Pink Floyd was taking The Dark Side of the Moon out on tour before releasing the album but it was seen only by astronomers and astronauts.
Rating: Not Visible From Romiley and totally useless
1986 •   Comet Halley – The Twice in a Lifetime wonder was a total waste of time in 1986. A contemporary account records: "I pointed my binoculars at the part of the sky where Halley was alleged to be lurking. If it was there, I saw it. But I have no idea which particular patch of light it was."
   Strictly one for TV pictures, including the encounter of the Giotto space probe with the comet.
Rating: pretty much NVFR
1994 •   Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 – This one appeared in the summer of the year and became famous for breaking up into a set of fragments, which zapped Jupiter, but it was strictly for people with access to ground- and space-based telescopes; not to mention the TV news and all those CD-ROMs that came out with Hubble pictures, etc.
Rating: NVFR
1996 •   Comet Hyakutake – It was visible in the spring; not exactly spectacular but the punters without telescopes did actually manage to see it. A comet-gazing RLC member recorded on March 28th:
   "Seeing the famous comet is all a matter of being outside when the clouds break up and knowing where to look. There's this fuzzy blob, more or less half the diameter of the Moon, just west of north at an elevation of about forty-five degrees. Not the most impressive astronomical object ever seen from Romiley but the only comet I can be sure of having seen."
   Needed binoculars or a telescope for a decent look.
Rating: VFR, could do better
1997 •   Comet Hale-Bopp – the only decent one visible in the northern hemisphere in the second half of the Twentieth Century. No binoculars, no telescopes needed, it was just there, hanging in the night or early morning sky. Our RLC astronomer recorded on March 6th, 1997:
   "I was awake at about five o'clock this morning, so I decided to check out the Comet Hale-Bopp situation. Wiping the condensation from my window, I saw a large smudge of light in the sky. It looked like the Moon behind thin clouds – except that it was too high and too far north to be the Moon.
   "Outside, in the garden, it was clear that this comet is more like what one should be like – you can see it with the naked eye, which is more than could be said about Hyakutake last year, and you know when you've seen it, unlike the last visit of Halley.
   "This one has quite a bright head, when seen through binocs, and possibly a double tail standing up from the head. It's quite a decent effort for once."
Rating: VFR, probably as good as these things get but hardly a band of light joining one horizon to the other
2000 •   Comet Linear – touted as possibly visible to the naked eye at its closest approach to the Sun in the summer of the last year of the 20th century; but wasn't. The comet broke up when it rounded the sun but only someone with a Hubble telescope could see it happen. [For further details, do a search for Comet Linear at the NASA website] Another cosmic flop.
Rating: NVFR
2002 •   Ikeya-Zhang – touted as "the brightest comet to appear in five years", it didn't get above 3rd magnitude during it's solar approach in February to May. Worse, it tended to be low down, obscured by trees, lost in bright skies and generally blotted out by clouds.
Rating: Possibly VFR if the clouds would let up, but probably only with binocs. Not a patch on Hale-Bopp.
2007 •   McNaught – "A bright comet is coming!" we were told in January 2007. Well, not as far as Romiley was concerned. Even if the weather had been favourable, this miserable effort was too close to a not very good horizon and a total flop.
Rating: NVFR. Total rubbish!
2007 •   Holmes – This ancient comet was first spotted by British astronomer Edwin Holmes in 1892. It has made 16 orbits of the Sun and it should have croaked years ago but it is thought to have a very fragile, honeycomb-like structure, which collapses periodically, releasing a huge cloud of dust. A dramatic brightening was observed in 1892. It happened again on 2007/10/23, when the comet brightened by a factor of about one million.
   The clouds over Romiley did not part until November 3rd, when the comet was seen at 18:30 hours, before the sky could become cloudy again. Working down from the "W" of Cassiopeia to Alpha & Delta Persei, which are placed one above the other, the comet was visible in the north-east as a fuzzy blob completing a left-pointing triangle with the 2 guide stars at about 30 degrees above the horizon.
   Binoculars were needed to see it in Romiley's light polluted skies, but the comet was easy to find and easy to see. As advertised elsewhere on the Internet, it appeared as a fuzzy ball of light with no discernable tail. Rockets and roman candles let off by people celebrating Bonfire Night a couple of days early provided further diversions for the comet-hunters.
Rating: VFR. Binoculars only but very easy to find.
2013 •   ISON – Trailed throughout the year as a "Comet of the Century", it was visible in the southern hemisphere as it approached the Sun. Everything went ominously quiet when the comet reached perihelion in November. Then NASA announced that a search with the Hubble space telescope had failed to find anything on the predicted course and ISON was reclassified as a sun-grazer, which had dropped to bits, and another total flop.
Rating: NVFR. Total rubbish!

This was the pay-off to the first version of this item – forlorn hope!
"Maybe things will get better in the Twenty-First Century and the Third Millennium. Maybe the biggest and best comet ever will light up the daytime skies in January, 2001. But nobody in Romiley is holding their breath!"

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