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Question Your World: How Did Technology Play a Role in the Comet ISON Story?

For a long time humanity has relied on technology to help us understand more about the natural world. For example, we can look up at the moon all we want, but without technology we would never see the detailed ridges on its surface or know what its dust is like. Observations and collecting data are just two of the many ways that technology can play a role in celestial happenings. So, how did technology play a role in the recent episode with Comet ISONLearn more in this week's Question Your World Radio Report by the Science Museum of Virginia. 

A long time ago comets were considered messengers from god. They would appear in the night sky and the events that would follow, let's say losing a war or a new king being crowned, were credited to the magical cosmic traveler that would be streaking across the sky when these Earthly events took place. All that changed once science and technology got involved. Messengers from god were quickly studied in detail once the telescope made its way onto the scene. Halley and Newton both were fascinated by a comet which seemed to come back ever seventy five years or so. Their fascination with this lead to humanity understanding about the orbits of comets and gravity! Technology made a pretty huge difference in the understanding of these natural phenomena.

As we have progressed in our ability to make smarter and faster technology, so has our understanding of what's happening around us. Comet ISON was spotted in September of 2012 by two amateur astronomers. Since then it did nothing but grow in interest to scientists and enthusiasts alike because of the vast amounts of data that is now available from a myriad of sources, thanks to technology. This comet sadly met its fate at perihelion when the sun's heat broke it up into smaller fragments and melted away a bulk of the comet's nucleus. Initially, this was named 'The Comet of The Century' by people around the world and thus ushered in the hype behind ISON's journey from the Oort cloud to the sun. Technology's role in this story is pretty remarkable though. This was the most-studied-comet-to-date!

A fleet of scientific instruments were tracking and studying ISON from as early as September of 2012. Over a year's worth of data and information was gathered from orbiting satellites, the international space station, orbiting telescopes, ground based data collection techniques, solar satellites, orbiters at Mars, deep space reconnaissance vessels, and most importantly, the millions upon millions of shares on social media internationally! All of these are technological means by which our world knew about ISON over a year before it was even in our neck of the woods! As we increase our technological footprint we'll be able to better study and make the world aware of the many amazing aspects of our natural world. 

This has been a fun year of keeping up with ISON's path and the dramatic perihelion approach on Thanksgiving of 2013 gave the internet community even more to talk about! Though it may not be the comet of the century for our night sky, thanks to technology, it still made for a pretty awesome tale!

Article by Prabir Mehta, Science Museum of Virginia

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