Zlatan Merakov in Bulgaria created this collage of images of comets, four of them, seen in a single night. Using a telescope, he captured all four images in one night in early November 2013.
And it wasn’t just a one-night event. In fact, several of these comets will be visible for some weeks or months to come, to amateur astronomers with telescopes and binoculars. At least one of these comets, Comet ISON, and possibly two of them – ISON and Comet Lovejoy – may become visible to the eye alone later this year. We hope so!
Why are there so many comets in Earth’s sky right now? There’s no real reason; it’s just happenstance. Unusual, yes. Earth-shaking … scary … portentous? No.
The fact is, the more powerful your telescope, the more comets you will see. On September 10, 2013, astronomy educator Stuart Atkinson at the blog Cumbrian Sky wrote about the apparent plethora of comets visible to amateur astronomers right now. He wrote:
Ok. The thing is, on every day of every week of every month of every year since the formation of the solar system, all those billions of years ago, there have been comets drifting around and passing Earth. They are always there, ALWAYS there, out in space. They’re as natural a part of our world as the planets, clouds and kittens. Astronomers who observe the sky don’t get excited about comets because there are so many of the damned things! It’s like a birdspotter getting excited about blackbirds, or thrushes.
Occasionally a comet is found with unusual properties, or an unusual orbit, and then the ears of astronomers prick up, especially if orbit calculations show the comet might become visible to the naked eye.
Because most comets don’t. Most comets never come anywhere near the sun, or the Earth, so never get bright enough to be seen without a good-sized telescope. ISON is unusual because it will get very close to the sun, and relatively close to Earth, and it has the potential to become a bright object later in the year. But it might not. We don’t know yet.
Atkinson goes on to express extreme frustration at the nutters, as he calls them, who think that these comets mean something. Swarm of comets heading toward Earth? Omens of disaster? Sign from the gods? Nope. Just a natural and normal part of life on Earth, at a time in history when many people have telescopes large enough to locate comets.
Thank you, Zlatan, for the great collage of comet images, and thank you, Stuart, for the comet illustration and your words of wisdom!
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.