Sunday, March 17, 2024

Comets: To Catch a Frozen Wanderer

In 1996 and 1997, comets had quite a moment. Comet Hyakutake and Comet Hale-Bopp garnered attention worldwide. Some people used the passage of Hale-Bopp for nefarious purposes that ended tragically.

I recall Hale-Bopp being much more celebrated, but Hyakutake being much more beautiful in the sky.

In any case, comets can burst onto the scene with little notice. What are they all about? We begin with an episode from How the Universe Works. Comets: Frozen Wanderers provides a nice, comprehensive lesson on the nature of comets. It holds out hope that ESA's Rosetta/Philae mission will be able to get up close and personal with a comet.

PBS's To Catch a Comet picks up the story from there, providing a moment-by-moment account of Rosetta's rendezvous with Comet 67P. A great story with challenges and nail-biting moments.

As always, I have questions.

We follow the odyssey of a comet as it sails through space, watching every move as it evolves from a chunk of ice and rock into an active nucleus engulfed in a gaseous haze. What we learn is a revelation; comets are even more mysterious than we imagined.

On November 11, 2014, billions of kilometers from Earth, a spacecraft orbiter and lander did what no other had dared to attempt: land on the volatile surface of a comet as it zooms around the sun at 67,000 km/hr.

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