By Marty Russell
On this day in 1493, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus was sailing around the Dominican Republic after earlier mistaking the Americas for the coast of India and giving us American Indians. History records that he spotted some things in the water he thought were mermaids leading us to the conclusion that Columbus was probably not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
What Columbus likely spotted were manatees, ugly sea cows with paddle tails but human-like eyes distantly related to elephants. Even though Columbus insisted they were the mermaids of legend, even he had to admit in his log that they were “not half as beautiful as they are painted.” No kidding.
We should probably keep that observation in mind as prepare for sightings of a different kind in the new year. Several people have asked me about “the comet” after some national news organizations picked up on the story recently that an incoming comet could put on a spectacular show this year.
Actually, we’re due for not one but two visits from newly discovered comets this year and, while each does have the potential for putting on a great light show in the sky, their actual appearance when they finally arrive is notoriously hard to predict.
Comets are balls of ice and dust that orbit the sun, usually in long, elliptical orbits that take them way out to the edges of the solar system. However, occasionally one comes fairly close to the Earth as it whips around the sun before heading back into the far reaches where it can spend centuries before returning. They were once considered harbingers of doom.
As they approach the sun, the sun’s heat and solar winds melt the comet’s icy surface and blow a tail of ice and dust out behind it, like driving a pickup down a dusty dirt road. But how big and how bright that tail becomes is hard to predict. The last comet to put on a really good show to the naked eye was Hale-Bopp back in 1997.
This year we have not one but two opportunities for a potentially good show. The first is PanSTARRS due to arrive in early to mid-March. It will be visible in the night sky in our neck of the woods during that time. But the one astronomers really are looking forward to is ISON, which won’t arrive until November.
Speculation is that ISON may be the same object described as the Great Comet of 1680 which was visible in the sky even in daylight. ISON is expected to pass within 725,000 miles of the sun on Nov. 28 which should burn off enough debris to create an awesome tail as it comes within 40 million miles of Earth.
Again, it should. But we also should keep in mind Columbus’ observation of mermaids. They may turn out to be “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”
Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.