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Comet's fiery death the topic of cafe




Last year near this time, the buzz was about the end of the world, supposedly, according to the Mayans.

This year, the buzz in the scientific community was the end of Comet ISON.

Paul Adams, professor of physics at Fort Hays State University, and moderator at Thursday's Science Cafe at Gella's Diner & Lb. Brewing Co., 117 E. 11th, said they were gathered to mourn the death of the comet as it passed close to the sun Nov. 28.

The hope was the comet -- called a sun grazer due to its close brush with the sun -- would survive and put on a heavenly show this month. Instead, the 4.5-billion-year-old comet disintegrated.

"Oftentimes comets don't live up to their expectations," Adams told the audience. "So, we're having this special December Science Cafe not in celebration, but memoriam to Comet ISON."

Adams said there would be other opportunities this month to gaze into the heavens. One of the best opportunities are the nights -- or, rather, the early morning hours -- of Dec. 13 and 14, when there could be as many as 50 to 100 meteors per hour as part of the Geminid meteor shower.

But Comet ISON will go down in history as a meteorological disappointment, much like Comet Kohoutek in 1973, which was hyped as the comet of the century.

"Comet Kohoutek was one of those that didn't live up to its promise," Adams said.

What made Comet ISON intriguing was where it originated from.

"The consensus view is that it probably came from the Oort Cloud, which kind of surrounds the whole solar system," he said. "That doesn't happen very often. Most of the time, they are coming from the Kuiper belt, which is Pluto, and just beyond the orbit of Pluto. Some will come from the area of Jupiter."

Comet ISON was a one-shot opportunity.

"These that come from that far out will come in on an open orbit, so they're in and then they're out, and we'll never see them again," Adams said.

Adams said people can learn things from comets.

"Understanding those things help us understand ourselves, where we come from, in terms of our place in the solar system," he said. "Our knowledge is never as complete as we want. Part of that is comets are opportunities. Every one that comes in offers an opportunity to study something we haven't seen before."