Explains the stir caused by comets

[The following is an open letter to Greater New Milford-area residents from the volunteers at the McCarthy Observatory on the campus of New Milford High School.]

Dear friends of the McCarthy Observatory:

We are sure all of you have been following the fate of Comet ISON, the "Comet of the Century."

Its fate was more akin to that of Icarus rather than the glorious giant bright comet that speculators were hoping for. The heat and gravitational attraction from the sun was too much for its loosely packed structure to survive.

Such is the way of comets -- these "long period" comets that come to the inner solar system from the Oort Cloud are very hard to predict. That is the exciting part of science -- there is much left for mankind to learn.

This was the most studied comet ever, with modern instruments and many telescopes around the planet tracking it -- your observatory included.

Several fine images of ISON are on mccarthyobservatory.org, taken from March to November.

The good news is there is another long period comet in view now -- Comet C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy) -- with four fine images on the website.

Like ISON, only brighter, this is a morning comet, and is now visible with binoculars well before dawn in Corona Borealis.

More fascinating than all this, Mars is likely going to have its own cometary excitement next year.

Input from "New Scientist" Dec. 6 said "Calculations suggest the Red Planet's `comet of the century' will come closer to its surface than any comet has come to Earth's in recorded history -- causing a meteor shower so epic that it may pose a danger to the spacecraft that orbit Mars. Comet C/2013 A1, also known as comet Siding Spring, is due to cross Mars' orbit October 19, 2014."

It will come about 20 times closer to Mars than any known comet has ever come to Earth, and its debris trail could well be hazardous to man-made orbiters circling the Red Planet.

A United States and an Indian orbiter are en route to Mars, arriving before the comet, so this could be a more perilous journey than usual.

As you can tell, your observatory team loves comets -- nothing generates excitement about astronomy more than seeing a fine comet, and the great meteor showers we all get excited by when earth travels though debris left by comets of yesteryear.

Comets aside, we are now entering "Jupiter Season." Please find time to come and see the giant planet and its four Galilean Moons ... one of the great "gasp" objects. It is quite a sight.

Happy holidays!

The volunteers

McCarthy Observatory

New Milford