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.
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.
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).
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).
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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