Joe Rao on Comet ISON and Weather Forecasting

by AMNH on


If you’ve lived in or visited the New York metro area in the past 30 years chances are you’ve gotten your weather report from Joe Rao. Currently a meteorologist on News12 Westchester, Rao is also a longtime presenter at the Museum’s Hayden Planetarium, where he was first captivated by astronomy as a boy. 

Joe Rao Headshot
Joe Rao 

Recently, we spoke with Rao about the Comet ISON, which on Thanksgiving Day will pass within just 750,000 miles of the Sun’s surface. Should the comet stay intact, it will be clearly visible from Earth.

Why is Comet ISON so special? 

A comet is not something that is rare; in fact, you could step outside tonight with a telescope and see about a dozen or so comets in the sky—but you need a big telescope, and you need to know where to look.  

What makes Comet ISON so special is that you can see it with the naked eye—a bright star with a trail stretching from behind. 

How was ISON discovered?

Today, most comets, like Comet ISON, are discovered with telescopes that are scanning the sky for near-Earth objects. Comet ISON was discovered by two Russian astronomers in September 2012 using telescopes in the International Scientific Optical Network, hence the name ISON.

It used to be that stargazers would look up at the night sky through their telescopes, and study star-maps; when they saw something resembling a comet that they had not seen before and that did not appear on any star-maps, they would get two friends to verify it.  Then, they’d report the newly found comet to the International Astronomic Union (IAU). When approved, the comet would be named after the astronomers. Many amateur astronomers still spend countless hours looking for comets.

Comet ISON C/2012 S1
Comet ISON C/2012 S1, Hubble image from October 9, 2013
NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

When did you decide that you wanted to be a meteorologist?

It all started for me at the Hayden Planetarium; when I was 10 years old my grandfather took me to hear Dr. Fred Hess speak. He was giving a talk about a big meteor shower that was coming up. Dr. Hess was an incredibly dynamic speaker and I got really excited for this.  So the night the shower was set to occur I did my homework early, I ate early, I went to bed early, all so that I could get up to watch the shooting stars at midnight.  But before I went to bed, I turned on the TV and I watched the weather forecast. Back in the sixties there were three weather people— Channel 2, Channel 7, and Channel 4—and all three of them said that it was going to be a beautiful clear night to watch the meteor shower.

I was thrilled, so in the middle of the night I woke up and went outside with my grandfather. The sky was absolutely overcast and I cried! I cried not so much because I was missing the meteor shower but because all three of the weathermen on TV led me astray. At that moment I decided that would never happen to me again, and the very next day I started studying the weather—but I’ve never lost my interest in astronomy.

Do you have a favorite weather forecast?

A number of years ago, a big blizzard was set to hit New York City, but at the last minute it looked like it may have been driven out to sea. All the weather stations were reporting that New York City was clear, but I knew the map showing that specific data was not always accurate, so I was not positive. The company I was working for at the time had a contract with the New York City Sanitation Department, and the commissioner called me up to complain. He said, “I am paying overtime to have all these workers on stand-by and everyone is saying the blizzard is going to pass us.” 

Despite how mad he was, I told him to keep his sanitation workers on stand-by, and sure enough, a couple hours later New York City got hit with over a foot of snow. The commissioner sent me a letter thanking me for my forecast and I still have it hanging in my office to this day.