The apparition of a comet in the sky has long been interpreted as a harbinger of doom. In fact, the word “disaster” translates from the Latin to mean “ill-starred,” a sure sign of some new calamity was about to befall mankind (or at least the particular observer). A classic example is depicted in the famous Bayeux Tapestry in France, which records the appearance of (what we now know to have been) Halley’s Comet in 1066 AD. It was thought to foretell the defeat of King Harold of England in the Battle of Hastings later that year. Of course, it could also have been interpreted to mean a favorable sign for his opponent, William the Conqueror – but apparently people prefer bad news over good.
Given that the current year of 2020 AD seems to feel like a proverbial disaster to almost everyone, we might very well assume that there have been a few comets flying around out there, ushering in one catastrophe after another. And we would not be disappointed.
The last week of December saw the world learn about a new and deadly strain of coronavirus appearing in China. That very same week, Comet ATLAS (C/ 2019 Y4) was discovered by the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System. The comet was widely touted as the next Great One, expected to grow and become spectacular by May. It instead started breaking apart on March 22nd, and ultimately dispersed and disintegrated over the next two months. Unfortunately the coronavirus also dispersed as well, but failed to disintegrate. Without a comet, we had only politicians remaining on which to place the blame.
Around the time Comet ATLAS started fizzing away, a brand-new demon star appeared to prod our misery. Comet SWAN (C/2020 F8) was discovered March 25th by the Solar Wind ANisotropies camera aboard the SOHO spacecraft. This, too, was predicted to make a spectacular showing; and it, too, fizzled badly, just barely reaching naked-eye visibility before disappearing.
So, what new misfortune should we associate with SWAN? For me that’s easy, since I had made extensive personal plans to photograph the spectacular comet and have it all written up for the online Lyons Recorder, complete with already-prepared finder charts and useful observing tips. So, ironically for me, the failure of the comet itself was the disaster. In addition, about the same time, publication of the Recorder itself was suspended, making the whole thing a double fiasco. The latter can also be attributed to another faint comet that came and went without much fanfare: PANSTARRS (C/2017 T2).
By mid-summer, as if on cue, yet another comet had arrived on the scene. This one carried the moniker NEOWISE (C/2020 F3), an acronym rather tortuously extracted from its discoverer’s name: Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. Finally at last, we had a comet that was worthy of some dire prediction. In the wee hours of the morning of July 10th, the comet cleared the ridge south of Blue Mountain (Lyons) to my northeast and was able to be glimpsed with the naked-eye. Five days later the comet had raced over to grace the evening skies as well, and had dramatically brightened, ultimately sprouted an impressive 10-degree dust tail and a faint blue ion tail pointing directly away from the Sun. NEOWISE became the first obvious naked-eye comet to be visible from the latitude of Lyons since Comet Hale-Bopp, 23 years earlier.
Can we conjure up a worthy disaster to associate with this latest and greatest apparition? Easy. As seen in this time-lapse:
Time-lapse of Comet NEOWISE setting in the foothills to the northwest of Lyons between 10:30 p.m. and midnight on July 20, 2020. Airplanes can be seen en route to Denver International Airport, followed by cloudy skies that give the illusion of the sky catching fire. Video is a 13-second exposure by the author using a Sony NEX-5r camera at 18 mm focal length, f/5.0, and ISO 3200.
The whole sky appears to ignite and burst into flames as the comet descends into the foothills to the northwest of Lyons on July 20th. So we now have an astrological “explanation” for the recent extreme heat and drought in the West, and in particular for the disastrous Cameron Peak fire that destroyed our forests, clouded our skies, and choked our lungs.
And just think: the year’s not over yet.
Keith Gleason is the former manager of Sommers-Bausch Observatory on the University of Colorado campus, where he spent thirty years devising astronomy lab experiments and experiences used to torture astronomy students. Since retirement, he has been learning to play with his own astrophotography toys while also helping his wife tend their flock of sheep.