Comets: Bad Boys of the Solar System

© 1997 by Robert C. Moler

Note: This article was written the week before the tragic suicides in California linked to a belief that Hale-Bopp was a marker or sign.

As the spectacular Comet Hale-Bopp reaches its closest point to the sun April 1st, let's take a look a comets' bad reputations both real and imagined. In the past comets were dreaded omens of no good. So why are we so happy to be viewing perhaps the brightest comet of the century? If you haven't seen Comet Hale-Bopp, or tried to see it yet, you are probably reading the wrong publication. The comet is impressive to the unaided eye, binoculars and telescope. Whichever you choose, there are wonders to behold.

In ancient times comets, perhaps because they appeared randomly for a few weeks or months, and moved slowly in the sky, were thought to be omens of all sorts of calamities. Comets upset the notion that the heavens were perfect and changeless, with the sphere of stars, the spheres of the five planets, and of the sun and moon, all moving is perfect circular motion. Indeed comets were thought to be exhalations in the earth's atmosphere, part of the earth's 'vesture of decay', as Shakespeare put it in the Merchant of Venice. Here are a few examples:

There's lots of other examples. Suffice it to say that... One: Bad things happen all the time. Two: Comets come around once in a while. So... Three:: Comets get blamed for whatever bad happens when they are around. Question: Who or what gets the blame when a comet isn't around? Answer: Perhaps the previous comet.

Astronomers understand very well the forces that govern the motions of comets and the other bodies in the solar system. The greatest force is between the body its self and the sun. However the gravitational force between that body and all the others in the solar system also affect the orbit a bit. Comet's also exhibit rocket like forces caused by the expelling of gas and dust from hot spots on the comet's surface. These cause slight changes in the orbit and also make for some complex rotational effects.

None of these forces of the comet have any measurable effect on the inhabitants of earth. However that doesn't stop some folks from seeing in this comet the signs of doom and even the end of the world. It also doesn't help that the comet is passing through near the end of the millennium. In surfing the Internet with the keyword 'Hale-Bopp' I found all manner of pages, most of which, like mine dedicated to spreading the word about the beautiful celestial sight. A few were strange. For instance the Farsight Institute which performed 'Scientific Remote Viewing' , whatever that is, to see UFO's flying near the comet There's These Last Days Ministries, which features a picture of the comet on their home page, as a sign of the last days. Then there's a cryptically titled page: Satan's hidden history - Comet Hale Bopp, asteroids, Mars, Cydonia, sphinx, Bible prophecy, pyramid, apocalypse.

All this silliness aside, can Comet Hale-Bopp do us any damage? No, at least this time around. The threat from comets is not metaphysical, but physical. It's got to hit the earth to do any damage. And the earth is a very small target. Take Comet Hyakutake, which last year passed about 9.5 million miles from the earth. If the earth were a bull's-eye 1 inch in diameter the comet passed at a distance of 99 feet away. Comet Hale-Bopp will miss a one inch earth by a quarter of a mile. I don't think we need worry this time around. Had the comet's timing been a bit different, passing through a bit more than 4 month's earlier, it would have passed at a distance similar to Hyakutake's on January 2nd. Depending on how the orbit changes, a collision with the earth in the far future could be a possibility, but too late for the current End Times crowd.

Actually comets hit the earth all the time. Well, actually pieces of comets, if you want to be picky about it. Meteor showers are caused when the earth passes through the path of an old periodic comet. The larger bits of a comet that are liberated when the frozen gasses of the comet sublimate in the sun's heat are too massive to be blown back into the comets tail, end up orbiting the sun near the comet's path. These particles slowly spread out along the comet's orbit. There are generally more meteoroids (that's the correct term for these particles) near the comet itself. A few years ago we had richer than normal Perseid meteor showers because the originating comet Swift-Tuttle was passing through the inner solar system. We also expect in 1998 or 1999 the normally lackluster Leonid meteor shower of November to become spectacular because its comet, Tempel-Tuttle, is in the area. The last peak of the shower, a year and a half after the comet passed through, produced for a short time an estimated thousands of meteors a minute for a short period of time in 1966.

Should the solid nucleus of a comet hit the earth, it would be a different story.


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Uploaded: 03/29/97