Russian astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok discovered Comet ISON in September of 2012, and it bears the name of their night-sky survey program: International Scientific Optical Network. ISON is a group of observatories in ten countries organized to track objects in space. In late November, an unprecedented 80 ground-based telescopes and 16 NASA spacecraft stood ready to observe the comet’s approach toward the inner Solar System, and astronauts on board the International Space Station were also watching. Some writers predicted that ISON would be the greatest, sky-watching event in a thousand years. As of this writing in October, more serious writers have maintained a cautious perspective. By the time you read this, you will know how things worked out. If ISON delivered the big show NASA was hoping for, every telescope on Earth, and in the Solar System, will have been trained on the comet.
Comets are erratic members of the Solar System that are usually of small mass. They travel through space and only become visible when they approach the Sun and heat causes them to glow. Based on their orbits, most short-period comets may come from the Scattered Disk, but long-period comets are believed to originate from the Oort cloud. Halley’s comet, so named, as he was first to predict a comet’s return, is the most famous short-period comet, clearly visible to the unaided eye. The 75-year return cycle of Halley’s comet has been recorded for nearly 2,000 years; its last appearance was in 1986. Comets with elongated orbits are periodic and return at fixed intervals. Those with parabolic or hyperbolic orbits are only expected to return in hundreds or thousands of years, or be flung into outer space never to return.
ISON is believed to be an object from the Oort cloud. Named for Dutch astronomer Jan Oort, the cloud is a hypothesized giant sphere of predominantly icy planestesimals that lies nearly a light-year from the Sun. This places the cloud at nearly one-fourth the distance to Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our Sun. Voyager I won’t reach the inner edge of the cloud for another 246 years and won’t exit the outer Solar System for another 28,000 years. In a sense, the Oort cloud is the spherical container of the Solar System.
The outer Oort cloud is affected by the gravitational pull of passing stars and the Milky Way itself. These forces occasionally dislodge comets from their orbits and send them speeding toward the inner Solar System. Comets are notoriously unpredictable, and while Comet ISON has the potential to be stunning, it may also disappoint. One hazard is the Sun, as tidal forces and solar radiation are known to destroy comets. A recent example is Comet Elenin, a much smaller comet, which broke apart in 2011 as it approached the Sun. The Hubble telescope measured ISON in April of 2013 and estimated the comet to be three to four miles across; the danger zone for comet size is about one-third of a mile in diameter.
Astronomers have been able to predict where ISON would be in the sky and when it should be visible. The last two “great comets” were in the southern hemisphere, but ISON was expected to be observable in the northern hemisphere.
Mars orbiters had a ringside seat at the beginning of October 2013 when ISON had a close flyby of the red planet. That occurred at a key time in the comet’s journey when it had just crossed the “frost line,” a place outside the orbit of Mars where solar heating begins to vaporize frozen water. Although ISON’s rank on the brightness scale was disappointing, it was still headed toward the Sun and expected to brighten.
On November 28, 2013, Thanksgiving Day, ISON was set to reach perihelion, its closest approach to the Sun. The icy visitor from the outer Solar System was to fly through the Sun’s atmosphere about 620,000 miles from the stellar surface, earning the designation “sungrazer.” If ISON survived, unlike the mythical Icarus whose wings of wax melted, the comet, it was predicted, could emerge glowing as brightly as the Moon and briefly visible near the Sun in daylight. Astronomers were optimistic because of ISON’s size. If things went as expected, the comet should have been visible to the unaided eye at night from early November 2013 until mid-January 2014. The comet’s dusty tail, it was projected, could stretch across the sky, as the dark nights of winter would provide the perfect backdrop. If ISON performed it would have passed almost directly over the North Pole, making it a brilliant circumpolar object all night long and visible in the dawn skies leading up to Winter Solstice.
For several days around January 12, 2014, Earth will pass through a stream of fine-grained debris from the comet; this shower will rain down on our planet from two directions simultaneously. Astronomers say this kind of “double hit” would be unprecedented. But comet ISON’s most spectacular display could be the nights of December 24-26, 2013, perhaps reminding us of a long ago Christmas Star.
Although telescopes now allow us to detect comets a long way off, they are still unexpected visitors. They have been viewed as both unwelcome intruders or stunning messengers heralding change. Their journey into the inner Solar System begins when they are knocked out of orbit and propelled inward toward the Sun. They carry disruptive energy on their journeys; the period of disturbance is said to be from first appearance to perihelion when they are closest to the Sun.
The Bayeux tapestry, which depicts the Battle of Hastings in 1066, clearly shows a great comet in the sky. The next great comet occurred in 1577, the year when Sir Francis Drake set sail around the world. The Great Comet of 1680, also called Newton’s Comet, has the distinction of being the first comet discovered by a telescope. (See John Chamber’s article The Mathematics of Catastrophe in AR #101.) The ancients said the appearance of a comet was a sign that “God had changed his mind.” Greek and Medieval observers thought the influence of comets was evil, rather like divine retribution. That view seemed justified in 1994 as we watched comet Shoemaker-Levy collide with Jupiter.
Comets have been seen to usher in political change and shifts in worldview. Astrologer Jonathan Flanery says, “Throughout the history of astrology, the appearance of comets was seen as a sign of upheaval, affecting agriculture and the weather. Comets were also seen as heralding the rise to power of an ‘agent,’ a military or religious leader, or a reformer.” Earlier observers looked at the part of the sky comets traversed, and the bright stars they encountered on their path, to determine the nature of the influence they might exert. Vivian Robson, in Fixed Stars And Constellations In Astrology (1923), says the effects of comets are influenced “through the constellation in which they appear, and also through the zodiacal sign and degree to which their position corresponds.” Comet ISON first appeared through a telescope at 29°25′ Cancer between the constellations Gemini and Cancer. In ISON’s journey toward the Sun, it was destined to pass through the signs of Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, and Scorpio before reaching station, or appearing to stand still, at perihelion on November 28 in Sagittarius, at 6 Sag 49.
In the typically pessimistic view of his time, Robson reported that comets “cause inordinate heat, pestilence, sterility of the earth, wars, and changes in kingdoms, winds, earthquakes, and floods, and are assigned to the planets according to their colors.” Science seems to support this view in part as astronomers say comets are ideal vehicles for transporting microbes, including viruses, from planet to planet and solar system to solar system. When these organisms are deposited on a world already thriving with life, genes may be exchanged, new species may evolve, or, conversely, contagion may be released, and disease and plague may spread.
Comets are seen as fiery and are “ignited” by the Sun, blazing across the sky with tails that can stretch for thousands of miles. Some writers believe they are related to the fire of volcanoes. In certain ancient traditions they are seen as messengers from beyond, fiery lives that distribute energy along their orbital paths, acting as purifying triggers for transforming change. Like planets, cometary energies are impersonal, and their effects are based on the system upon which they impinge. Comets are unexpected and unknown until discovered, giving them an influence that is rather Uranian, and like Uranus’s other mythic identity Prometheus, comets can also be seen to bring fire to humanity like a flaming, two-edged sword.
Drawing again from ancient wisdom, comets are believed to produce electrical, magnetic, and psychic energy, burning, cleaning, and adjusting energy in the system. In Cosmos In Man, H. Saraydarian said, “The unfolding human soul grows through crisis.” In this light, each crisis is seen as an opportunity and a test. As awareness expands, crises grow from individual to global. Saraydarian claims that a comet entering an organized sphere such as a Solar System stimulates an atomic release and has the capacity to transmute energy. The results can include an expansion of consciousness, a deconstruction of things not in line with cosmic harmony, and revelations of new laws and elements. If Saraydarian is right, this influence, combined with the ongoing Uranus-Pluto square, could be a potent stimulus.
November 1 was the next exact square between Uranus-Pluto, and on November 3, a rare hybrid annular-total Solar Eclipse occurred, spanning the Atlantic Ocean and Central Africa. Part of the eclipse path experienced totality, while the remainder saw an annular eclipse. During totality, well-placed observers could have glimpsed ISON near the Sun. The eclipse was expected to further intensify these energies.
Analyzing the symbolic meaning of comets takes astrology into the arena where the Tropical signs and the Sidereal astrology of the stars combine. Around 100 CE, during Ptolemy’s time, as the ages changed and the star pictures shifted, the claws of the Scorpion became the scales of Libra. Even so, the symbolic power of the Scorpion has not diminished. How the star pictures are drawn may shift, but the stars retain their energetic signature, and earlier opinion was based more on the nature of the stars. Although ISON was set to reach perihelion at 6 Sagittarius 49 of the Tropical Zodiac, it was to be in the constellation of Scorpio, and conjunct the delta star in Scorpio, Dschubba, from the Arabic word jabhat, which means “forehead.” Dschubba is one of three stars that make up the head of the Scorpion and was part of the “crown of the Scorpion” in ancient times. It was an important star, and one of its early names was “jewel.”
Richard Hinkley Allen, in Star Names, Their Lore And Meaning, says this star was called “the Light of the Hero, or the Tree of the Garden of Light, placed in the midst of the abyss, reminding us of that other tree, the Tree of Life, in the midst of the Garden of Eden.” The Hindus believed this star was fortunate, and the earliest commentators associated it with the nature of Mercury. The comet appeared to stand still in association with Dschubba, and if we think of this star as similar to Mercury, this could indeed signify a “message.” The ancients might have interpreted this conjunction as the rise of a powerful and enlightened leader, someone who would wear the “crown” and bring the “light of the hero.”
Whether striking terror in the hearts of the superstitious, or being welcomed as harbingers of change, comets have always been seen as portents, telegraphing a dramatic message across the sky. ISON’s ultimate message may depend on the comet’s fate, so you be the judge. Regardless of interpretation, the so-called great comets become part of collective consciousness. To witness one is to be filled with awe and wonder. Anything that captures the attention of the world is powerful, drawing our eyes to the sky, and briefly reminding us that the Universe is larger than our concerns, and celestial events are not in our control. If ISON has proved to be spectacular, we might gaze heavenward on Christmas Eve and ponder what needs to change on Earth and in our personal philosophies.