New Planetarium Program Showcases Comets

Fires in the Sky debuts today at the Creation Museum!

We are excited to announce a new program in our Stargazers Planetarium. Fires in the Sky: The Sun Grazing Comets comes just a few months before the sun grazing Comet  ISON makes it’s pass around the sun later this year.

D501_ISON_Screenshots_Comet02Comets have long fascinated, impressed, and even terrified their observers. In fact, many people came to believe that the siege of Jerusalem and then the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 were foreshadowed by the appearance of Halley’s Comet four years earlier. And the return of Halley’s Comet in 1066, just before the Battle of Hastings, was credited with the defeat of King Harold at the hands of William the Conqueror.

Though comets have long been the source of much superstition, modern science has shed a great deal of light on these spectacular lights in our sky. Beginning in the seventeenth century, Sir Isaac Newton established the discipline of physics in part to explain the motion of the moon around the earth and the planets around the sun. His good friend Edmund Halley applied Newton’s ideas to comets and showed that they also followed very predictable orbits around the sun.

The orbits of comets are very different from the orbits of planets in two ways. First, instead of being nearly circular, comets follow orbits shaped like highly-eccentric flattened ellipses. Second, the length of a comet’s orbit can vary dramatically. Astronomers classify comets into two types based on their orbital period: long-period and short-period. A short-period comet typically completes an orbit in less than 200 years. The orbit of a short-period comet can reach just beyond the most-distant planets. Comet ISON is a long-period comet.

“Dozens of comets are discovered each year,” said staff astronomer, Dr. Danny Faulkner. “So, finding another one isn’t unusual. However, Comet ISON is remarkable in that it is a type of comet that we call a ‘sun grazer’.”

As the name suggests, “sun grazer” comets pass very close to the sun. Some of the most spectacular comets in history, including Halley’s Comet, have been sun grazers. “In December, 2013, as Comet ISON travels near the sun, it should be dazzling,” explains Dr. Falkner.

D501_ISON_Screenshots_EdmundHalleyComet ISON will remain too faint to be seen with the naked eye until early October 2013, when it may become visible without a telescope. On November 28, ISON will reach its closest point to the sun. It will likely be brightest at this time and shortly thereafter. It is possible that you will even be able to see the comet during the day. While unlikely, there is a possibility that the sun’s radiation and gravity will destroy the comet, but most astronomers believe it will survive.

In December, ISON will be visible in both the east in the morning, and the west in the evening. In January, it will fade from visibility by the naked-eye, although those with binoculars or telescopes may continue to follow it for several months.

To see the comet, you will need clear weather and a good exposure to the horizon, with few trees or buildings to block your view. It is also best to be away from city lights, too.

Plan to come and see this new planetarium program. Visit our website for more information about this and other state-of-the-art attractions at the Creation Museum!

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