The good news is that Comet ISON (C/2012 S1) got coverage on ABC World News last night. The bad news is that they made a few mistakes. And by “a few” I mean eight.
Some of the words are right – but in completely the wrong context. Other remarks are just bizarre and/or totally inaccurate.
Play the video and then read my take on the madness, below.
Here are the problems, which get worse as you go down:
1. “Comet of the Century” : While this isn’t technically inaccurate (many online & print articles have used this name) it’s MUCH to early to predict whether the comet will dazzle or fizzle. Names like this just set people up for disappointment.
2. “Brighter than the Full Moon” : Since this is said at the beginning of the report, it implies that the comet is ALREADY brighter than the Full Moon. This is obviously not right. Estimates state that the comet *could* reach that brightness as it makes its closest approach to the Sun at the end of November. At that time, though, it will be so close to the Sun from Earth’s perspective that it will likely be impossible to see against the Sun’s glare.
3. “Jupiter’s Rings” : While Jupiter *does* have rings, I think that the writer must have been thinking of Saturn, as Jupiter’s rings are very faint and were only discovered by the Voyager 1 space probe in 1979. Mentioning them here does not make sense.
4. “Sailing near the Earth around Thanksgiving” : ISON will be close to the *Sun* around American Thanksgiving (Nov. 28) and make its closest approach to Earth on December 26th so the report really should have said “around Christmas.”
5. “Experts say it’s too big to burn up…” : I don’t even know where to start with this one. What does “too big to burn up” mean? Too big to “burn up” if it hits the Sun? Too big to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere? I assume they mean that it will survive its close pass around the Sun (which actually isn’t certain) but if so, that’s a weird way to say it.
6. “Instead, an invisible rain of comet dust will drift down to Earth…” : OK. This is a possibility, but it’s worded badly. It’s also not a sure thing. The Earth regularly passes through tiny particles left behind by comets and this process causes meteor showers. One computer model has suggested that as the Earth passes through the dust ejected by this comet, the particles will not burn up as a meteors but instead “…drift gently down to the Earth below.” Also, it won’t rain this material “instead” of “burning up”… Those two things are completely unrelated. See this article for more: http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2013/19apr_isonids/
7. “Stargazers will see electric blue clouds over the North and South poles.” : Hoo boy. This could be a *possible* result of the fine-grained dust entering the atmosphere, but as this NASA article states: “This is still speculative, but Comet ISON could provide the seeds for a noctilucent display. Electric-blue ripples over Earth’s polar regions might be the only visible sign that a shower is underway.” Again, the timing and wording of the statement in the report indicated that the comet would be causing this effect directly (which is misleading), and around Thanksgiving (which is wrong!)
8. The report NEVER NAMES THE COMET! : In an odd omission, the report never refers to the comet by its colloquial name, Comet ISON. I suppose viewers may not remember it even if they heard it, but it wouldn’t have hurt to mention it.
Does This Matter?
While I laughed at the report, anyone unfamiliar with astronomy or this particular comet would assume that this information could be trusted. If the “Comet of the Century that produces blue clouds” doesn’t materialize, astronomers will no doubt get some of the blame.
Plus, call me naive, but I think we should expect “the news” to inform – not disinform. (Hey, stop laughing…)