In quest of a true spectacle

We all enjoy sky-spectacles, and especially those that do not require a telescope. Some are not too frustratingly rare, such as brilliant meteors and rainbows. And we can greatly increase the odds of seeing these if we know when they’re most likely. Meteors, for example, are far more prevalent between midnight and dawn on nights when the moon is absent. They’re even more prevalent during rich showers, like the Perseids on August 11 and the Geminids every December 13.

And rainbows preferentially occur during afternoons from May through August.

Other spectacles are truly rare. A total solar eclipse last occurred over our region on January 24, 1925. And the next over Kingston and New Paltz won’t happen until May 1, 2079, although, we’ll have one as nearby as Burlington on April 8, 2024.|

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The most recent vivid aurora display overhead from here was in October 2001. We had an even better one a year earlier.

Among the rarest of spectacles are bright comets. On average, a comet brilliant enough to appear over light-polluted cities happens once every 15 to 20 years.

When it does, it might last for only a few nights, which was the case for the gorgeous comet West, amazing as seen from here on March 7, 1976, with a tail as long as 20 full moons in a row. Or it might stick around for a few months. We beat the odds and had the very unusual event of two bright comets only a year apart when the long but somewhat faint comet Hyakutake hovered near the Little Dipper in 1996, followed by much brighter Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997, which lingered for more than half a year.

Since then, southern hemisphere citizens got to see super-Comet McNaught in 2007, discovered by Aussie Bob McNaught but invisible from the US and Europe. And now, comets are just a memory.

Headlines a few weeks ago speculated that we were finally going to get a bright comet later this very spring — Comet Atlas. But I was pessimistic, since comets are sadistic objects that like to break our hearts.

Remember Comet Ison a few years ago, in 2013, the much-touted “comet of the century?” It was great for my daughter’s company, Special Interest Tours, since 110 people signed up to come to Chile to see it. But, sure enough, as it came close, the sun’s gravity tore it apart, and it faded dramatically, as Halley’s Comet had in 1986. And Comet Kohoutek a dozen years earlier, after making the cover of Time as, yes, that decade’s “comet of the century.”

That’s because we always can calculate where a comet will be, but not how it will behave. And now, sure enough, Comet Atlas has broken apart. It appears it will not put on any kind of show for us.

Still, we remain overdue for a “great comet.” Typically, the discovery will be a surprise, since the typical brilliant comet has a 10,000-to-80,000-year orbit and thus is unknown to us prior to its discovery. We usually get a few months’ warning that it will pass close to us and the sun.

So be patient. Sooner or later. . .