A comet's tale

How much of the world came to miss the most spectacular sky spectacle in decades

Daniel Fischer
Fachgruppe Kometen der Vereinigung der Sternfreunde
(Comet Section of the Association of Amateur Astronomers of Germany)
Im Kottsiefen 10
53639 Königswinter

To appear in the proceedings of CAP 2007

In January 2007 comet C/2006 P1 (McNaught) became brighter than Venus, was visible in the daytime sky and developed the most dramatic dust tail in recent memory. For those with clear skies during the crucial days and in the right geographical latitudes it was a sight to remember, a subject of everyday conversation, gaining local presence in the general media as well. But the world's media at large practically ignored the literally greatest astronomical story in decades, except in regional markets: This paper traces this surprising failure of the early 21st century media machinery to several interrelated factors and concludes that there simply was 'no one in charge' in the crucial moments. Finally the case of comet 17P/Holmes which increased its brightness a million times - two weeks after CAP 2007 - is treated as a complementary case study in progress.

An inconvenient orbit

Soon after McNaught's discovery on 7 August 2006, when enough astrometry was available to determine a reliable orbit, comet specialists (mainly in the amateur community) realized that C/2006 P1 could become very bright in the following January (McNaught 2006). But since comets can display all kinds of behavior when approaching the Sun and as this one had never been observed before, no one was willing to 'go public' in any way with that knowledge: The absolute magnitude and thus size of the nucleus of McNaught was not large, and so it was even considered possible that it would disintegrate when heating up and simply disappear. Despite half a dozen space missions to comets and ground-based observing records of hundreds of comet apparitions there was - and still is - simply no way to predict a comet's behavior based on its physical state at a particular time. The only hope lies in observations covering months and extrapolations of the brightness development.

The author first learned of the possibility of a great show in early November 2006 at a conference of German comet observers and decided to alert at least the German amateur community - not with any bold claims about great brilliance but at least the geometrical circumstances for the world in the crucial weeks two months hence (Fischer 2006a). Other than that article (and a note in an English-language news service [Fischer 2006b]) the impending approach of comet McNaught was, to my knowledge, totally ignored by the well-known astronomical media, let alone the general press, and this remained the case until the end of 2006. For an obvious reason: the comet was so close to the Sun all the time that its behavior simply could not be monitored reliably. Only when it was recovered at about the 'right' brightness in late December, enthusiasm among amateur astronomers specializing in comets started to climb (Fischer 2007), with still hardly anyone else knowing about what might unfold in the coming weeks.

Waking up

It took until 4 January 2007 for two major international news services for space enthusiasts to report on McNaught (Sinnott 2007, Rao 2007) which already had reached magnitude +2. At this time the comet was best seen - geometrically - from high northern latitudes, such as Alaska and Scandinavia. This explains why the first news stories in general media seem to have originated there; in the U.S. the comet at first was even treated as an 'Alaskan' phenomenon (Loomis 2007). For temperate Northern latitudes it was very low on the horizon but already visible to the naked eye by the 2nd week of January: This alone is rare enough that it should have warranted press coverage, especially since perihelion was still a week away and the comet was obviously not fizzling out, but to the author's surprise little happened (see the articles linked in the sidebar of Fischer [2006b]). The German public, for example, learned about the comet's existence largely from brief clips in TV weather reports - that had been instigated by individual amateur astronomers contacting the weather desk (Horn 2007). The author knows of no press release issued before McNaught's perihelion or a major wire story describing its stunning development in the first two weeks of January when its brightness increased daily, beating even Venus in the end - there were even independent 'discoveries' by lay people reported.

Around its January 13 perihelion McNaught was so bright that it could be spotted - in very clear skies at least - just 5° next to the Sun with little nor no optical aid. This rare phenomenon, unseen since the apparition of even brighter C/1965 S1 (Ikeya-Seki) in 1965, again did not make into general news, but this may actually have been a good thing: It would have been difficult to describe to the broad public in necessary detail how to try observations safely so close to the Sun, especially with binoculars. Then the comet swung towards the South, and in Australia, at least, it was awaited already. Encouraged by McNaught's great brilliance at perihelion and its obvious survival, papers such as the Sydney Morning Herald informed their readers about the visibility in the coming week. It helped, of course, that the comet discoverer himself was working in Australia, and in the end "it was the best publicised comet since Halley" (Bryant 2007). While parts of Australia had to struggle with clouds, "once the comet was bright and hanging over the Indian Ocean in a warm clear and still daylight sky, [...] it became headline news in all West Australian papers and television newscasts and stayed there for a week or so. The beaches were crowded with onlookers every night" (Gifford 2007). "It was mentioned in just about every evening news service I heard around the time", agrees a report from Adelaide: "The coverage of great comet McNaught in the media in Australia was absolutely phenomenal and unprecedented" (Jones 2007).

The view from down under

Several Australian amateur astronomers have reported, though, that the real means of transporting the news about the great comet show were not the traditional media but internet forums such as www.iceinspace.com.au which turned extremely popular - and word of mouth! According to a report from Canberra (contrasting with the above-mentioned assessment of the Australian press), "while the comet was not being mentioned much in the papers and the like, the public knew. For several nights, all the vantage points around Canberra were crowded (and I do mean crowded) with members of the public - many with cameras trying to take pictures. Also I have a daughter who lives in an outback town of 100 people, 100 km from the nearest town - and she tells me they were all looking at the comet" (Herald 2007). Even in Western Australia "much of the information came by word of mouth rather than from the media. Events happened so quickly that the media were always behind with their information" (Gifford 2007), an interesting assessment of a billion-dollar business. Indeed "the difference from 20 years ago is probably the internet, so that knowledge of the event was not dependent upon the old media of print/radio/TV" (Herald 2007) - but the 'old' media are still useful to trigger interest in a rare phenomenon in the first place! Then again electronic social networks "played a big part in being conduits of information and generating interest and excitement" about McNaught (Jones 2007).

In New Zealand the situation was similar, with "sufficient publicity for hordes of the public to take a good look. I've never seen such large crowds in NZ for any astronomical event before. [...] The news media co-operated by giving it what they could, but like any of the news anywhere in the world, they are dependent on astronomers giving them the correct facts" (Austin 2007). Barring the lack of press releases from prestigious astronomical institutions - which to my knowledge did not appear before 19 January (ESO PAO 2007a, Gemini PAO 2007) - initiatives by individual astronomers indeed were the key by which news about McNaught percolated into local media around the world (Machholz 2007), though often only with difficulty as editors were hard to convince to run the stories. And to tell the world about the comet, you first had to know about it yourself: It turns out that many even in the popular astronomy world - in the Northern hemisphere - did not learn about it in time! "So it wasn't just the public who were unaware, there were those within the local astronomical community who were unaware the comet was visible," a report from the UK says - where, on the other hand, the comet was impressive enough pre-perihelion to awe the average pedestrian running into an astronomer by chance (Overfield 2007).

Conclusions - and the next case

The final disappointment came in late January when comet McNaught had put on an outstanding performance for the Southern hemisphere, documented in countless photographs - readily available on many websites, if one just were told to look. Yet I am unaware of any major news story in the Northern hemisphere that would point this out to the public at large or of magazines running those pictures in all their glory. And the only press release after the 'main show' (ESO PAO 2007b) only stressed an astrophysical detail, not the McNaught phenomenon as such. Not only hadn't there been 'someone' with enough clout to announce to the world was might be coming: This reluctance can be forgiven, though the comet community should really try to improve comet forecasting techniques. But it is a pity as well as a missed opportunity for astronomy outreach that the world was not exposed to the sky show over Australia, South Africa and South America big time: Even when unable to view the comet's spectacle with their own eyes, the modern means of image transportation could have turned it into a celebration for the whole 'global village'. McNaught was big news as such, yet it was not carried with a vigor even approaching its worth.

Less than two weeks after CAP 2007, comet 17P/Holmes suddenly increased its brightness by 15 magnitudes or a factor one million, making it easily visible to the naked eye in Perseus (though looking like a fuzzy star, without any tail) for weeks. This time the media machinery worked somewhat better than in the former case, again 'lubricated' by individual astronomers (such as the author who triggered a press release by the German Amateur Astronomical Society that led to widespread coverage in this country) or the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., with a rather unusual press release featuring staff members' amateur photographs (CfA PAO 2007). Being an 'explosive' event surely helps, as for example the supernova 1987A, another strictly Southern sky event, had generated ample news coverage in the Northern hemisphere. But the astronomical communications community at large should find better ways to transport slowly - and unpredictably - developing astronomy stories as well, so that epochal events like comet McNaught don't just drown in a flood of lesser news ...

Acknowledgements: The author thanks all those who responded to a call for contributions on the Comets Mailing list which helped make this paper a somewhat more global effort.


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