The end of each year inspires myriad lists of the “best” and “worst” events in many categories – from “best” movies to “worst-dressed” celebrities. This year we are about to add a new list of our own – the astronomical “best” and “worst” of 2013.
2013 was a year of surprises and disappointments, astronomically speaking. Disappointing, since most of the many predictions for seeing Comet ISON as bright as a Full Moon turned out to be vastly over-rated. Alternatively, the year was surprising due to the gigantic meteor explosion over Chelyabinsk, Russia, that dominated the year’s astronomy news.
Although P/2012 Comet ISON, once touted as “The Comet of the Century,” fizzled big time, the positive outcome was that many additional astronomy enthusiasts were created due to the comet’s amazing potential.
Why did the comet fizzle? Actually, maybe it didn’t. After all, the brightness of a comet is notoriously hard to predict. As comet hunter David Levy says, “Comets are like cats: they have tails, and they do precisely what they want.” Many predictions about Comet ISON were made very early after its discovery, when the comet was still too distant to show clearly how it would brighten as it approached the Sun, and unfortunately, the comet never became the grand spectacle it might have been.
However, the amazingly powerful meteor streaking high over Chelyabinsk on February 15th became the best astronomical story of 2013 – and maybe of the entire century! This vast explosion became the wake-up call that reminded us of the imminent dangers we could face from asteroid collisions, and our need to research early interventions to prevent such devastation. The Chelyabinsk meteor injured over 1,500 people and was estimated to release over 20 times the energy of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima at the end of World War II. This meteor strike was the largest since the Tunguska event in 1908, which decimated trees in a 2,000 square kilometer area and had an estimated energy equivalent to 1,000 Hiroshima bombs. Myriad smaller meteoroids strike the Earth every day, but large events are rare (fortunately!) and large events over populated areas are rarer still. Just imagine if a Tunguska-like event occurred over Chicagoland.
You might disagree with these assessments of “best” and “worst”, but, as in all things, debate inspires interest. You can decide for yourself. Have fun as you debate your choices with your friends.
Written by Larry Ciupik, astronomer and director of the Doane Observatory at the Adler Planetarium.