MARTY RUSSELL: Demise of Comet ISON like a Greek tragedy



Well it looks like Comet ISON, which for months astronomers had speculated could put on a dazzling naked-eye light show in the holiday skies this Christmas, has turned out to be Comet Icarus instead.

You remember Icarus, don’t you? In Greek mythology, Icarus was the son of Daedalus. Daedalus was a master craftsman and architect who was commissioned by King Minos to build a massive, inescapable labyrinth to imprison the half-man, half-bull prodigy of Minos’ wife and the local livestock which came to be known as the Minotaur, not to be confused with the half-men, all-bull creatures we know as Congress.

Anyway, Daedalus fell out of the king’s grace when he provided Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, with a ball of string which she gave to Theseus, an enemy of the kingdom. Theseus used the ball of string, a la Hansel and Gretel, to enter the labyrinth, slay the Minotaur and find his way back out.

For his revenge, Minos had Daedalus and his son, Icarus, imprisoned in the labyrinth which makes no sense since Daedalus designed and built the thing and you’d think would be able to find his way out of this own creation. But that would be too easy and logical for a Greek tragedy so apparently Daedalus had some short-term memory problems and he and his son were trapped.

But despite his apparent brain-freeze Daedalus was still a master craftsman and built two sets of wings, one for himself and one for Icarus which they used to fly out of the labyrinth.

Daedalus warned Icarus to follow him and not fly too close to the sun. But Icarus, feeling free and cocky at having foiled Minos’ plot, did just that and the sun melted his wings and he fell into the ocean and drowned.

Pretty much the same thing happened to Comet ISON over Thanksgiving. The dirty snowball, which is essentially all a comet is, had spent billions of years in the cold, dark outer regions of the solar system before being drawn in toward the sun. Last week it was supposed to come within a million miles of the sun before being sling-shot out back towards the Earth.

But poor ISON didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. Like Icarus, it flew too close to the sun and the extreme heat disintegrated it, ruining our chances for a cosmic Christmas light show.

Still, some satellites, spacecraft and ground-based observers were able to get some great pictures of ISON before its swan song. Those can be found at various sites on the Internet.

Had it survived, it most likely would have lived up to initial expectations.

But all is not lost. Another comet, Lovejoy, has stepped up to take ISON’s place. While not big enough or bright enough to be seen with the naked-eye, Lovejoy is still fairly easy to find with binoculars in the pre-dawn northeast sky and is pretty impressive on its own.

Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at