Approaching Comet Gathers Attention

Posted at: 11/08/2013 8:41 AM
Updated at: 11/10/2013 10:43 PM
By: Ben Dery

By day, he's the handyman at a local marina. By night, he's an amateur astronomer who explores the Universe. On every clear night, you'll find William Wiethoff in his own world, with eyes gazing through a massive telescope.

"For me, it's just thrilling," says William.

About 18 years ago, William made the decision of a lifetime. He packed up, sold his house, put everything into storage, and drove around the country to find a place to live and pursue his dream and passion for astronomy.

He finally found the place he was looking for; a secluded log home just outside of Port Wing, Wisconsin. There, he utilizes a massive telescope with a 14" lens. He has even built his own observatory, complete with a retractable roof and mosquito netting.

"This is kind of the end result of that journey," says William. "I feel like this is kind of exactly what I wanted to do through science and astronomy."

On a typical night, he rolls the roof off, turns on the computer, and away he goes, with passion fueled by imagination.

"Before you know it, the sun's coming up. I can't stop," says William. "It's just a thrill. I lose track of time. I just feel immersed in the universe. Music going, I'm in my element, happy as can be."

A little over a year ago, the discovery of a new comet caught William's attention. He looked up the coordinates for Comet ISON and took a picture. At that time, this past April, the comet was just a small, fuzzy ball.

ISON's current course has it flying past the sun on Thanksgiving Day. UMD Astrophysicist, Alec Habig, says it's a pretty unique event.

"Once it whips past the Sun and gets shot back out, it's gone," explains Habig. "It's a one shot deal."

Habig says this is comet, at its perihelion (closest distance to the Sun), will be within a million miles from the Sun's surface. This, by Solar System standards is quite close, deeming it a "sungrazing comet".

You may remember Comet Panstarrs, visible earlier this year. Though a neat sight through a telescope, it was never really spectacular from the naked eye. If ISON survives its trip around the sun, we may be in for a treat.

"If we're lucky it'll give us a really good light show as it goes whipping right by so close to the sun," explains Habig.

That's what happened to Comet McNaught back in 2007. Its tail lit up the night sky as it flew by the Sun. The problem is comets are notorious for being unpredictable. There have been hyped comets before only to end up a dud. Despite the unknowns, Habig says a new comet into the Solar System is pretty cool.

"It was one of these crumbs left over from the solar system," says Habig. "It's been sitting around out there in deep freeze for 4.5 billion years."

"Everyone started getting excited," adds William. "Because they feel it was a fresh comet that's never been to our solar system before."

ISON will continue to slowly brighten as Thanksgiving nears. Until then, it's a waiting game. And, you can bet William and his telescope will be waiting in anticipation for a show.