At its very brightest it must have rivalled Venus. But by the time the amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy made the first sighting, it was already so close to the sun as to be all but invisible in daylight. On December 1 this year, five days after the Australian first reported his observations, the existence of Comet C/2011 W3 was confirmed: Comet Lovejoy was born. It was classed as a Kreutz Sungrazer and experts calculated that its orbit would take it so close to the sun that its destruction was guaranteed.
Three separate space agencies - Nasa, the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency - began tracking its trajectory. A scientist at the US Naval Research Laboratory, Karl Battams, described it as "an exceptionally rare opportunity to observe the complete vaporisation of a relatively large comet". Eighteen instruments on five different satellites were trained on Lovejoy as, on December 16, it rushed into the hellish corona of the sun - its perihelion - and towards certain doom.
But Comet Lovejoy survived. Barely a day later it was photographed by Nasa's Solar Dynamics Observatory emerging from the inferno of gases and fire. Its mass had diminished, and it had lost most of its tail, but it had survived. A few days later it could be clearly seen in the skies above the Southern Hemisphere, cutting through the predawn twilight like a searchlight. Day by day its tail has elongated and by tonight it will arc nearly halfway from horizon to zenith.
Despite all that certainty, all those calculations, all that evidence heaped upon evidence by experts convinced they knew what was going to happen, there was no dramatic ending for Comet Lovejoy. And there was no new beginning either. There was simply a headlong tumble - "a very rough ride", according to the Royal Astronomical Society - and a gloriously unpredictable survival.
Those who follow such things have described it as "exceptional". But it isn't, not really. Because to be exceptional suggests that it defied the rule. Only there was no rule. There was no Doomsday for Comet Lovejoy, only its erroneous prediction. It did not defy anything other than assumptions. It simply carried, recklessly, on.
There is something rather heartening about Comet Lovejoy's oblivious, ongoing orbit and its unknowing punch through that fallacious deadline. And there's something very timely about how it proved wrong human assertions of what would be and how things work.
We're forever trying to find patterns, make predictions and impose a sense of certainty and structure where none truly exists. It is human nature to define the world and our place in it, and it is writ large at this time of year: the end of another 12 months. So many of us bind ourselves to the notion that at midnight tonight a deadline will be reached - and a heartbeat later something new will have begun.
"Out with the old. In with the new," we say, as if there were any clear division between the two, as if one can be packed up or shaken off and the other begun on the tick of a clock.
It would be great if it were in any way a liberating or productive coping mechanism but for the most part, other than being a good excuse for a party, it isn't.
In the days leading up to New Year, those who mark it on January 1 tread water. We indulge in a sort of collective state of procrastination.
Between Christmas and December 31, productivity slumps regardless of how many people actually go into the office and serve out their working day. For those celebrating this New Year, it isn't simply a reflection of the increased socialising that goes on, but an indication of the state of mind that the season fosters. Everything, it seems, can or must wait "until the New Year".
We exist in a state of suspended animation. We abdicate responsibility. We defer decisions. We behave as if someone has hit the pause button on life and that play will resume "next year".
By way of legislating for all of this, we make resolutions - a procrastinator's charter by another name. After all, the generally accepted definition of procrastination is to "voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay", which surely makes it a synonym for New Year resolutions. They only cause us to delay today, limit tomorrow and, more often than not, feel like a failure the day after that.
There is no equivalent observance related to the Muslim New Year. The very notion of New Year resolutions, the self-denying, self-deluding vows to do better, to be better, to be more ordered, more contained, more controlled, next year, was one dreamt up by the Roman Catholic Church of old in an attempt to quash "heathen" celebrations glorifying Janus - the Roman god associated with transitions, gateways and time. He is always depicted with two faces: one looking back, one looking forward. To the early Roman Church he was a "devil-god" whose cult was to be stamped out.
So resolutions are predicated on a sense not of optimism but of resignation because, at their heart, is a tacit acceptance of the way the world is and a self-flagellating shoring up of our place in it.
But the truth is that the past and the future are not two unrelated entities. They both overlap and coexist. Time is not a ribbon to be cut at midnight. It bends, but not according to our will or understanding of it. Just because we draw up a calendar and pluck out one date as the beginning and another as the end doesn't mean that either the universe or our lives pivot on that axis.
Remember Y2K and the millennium bug that never bit? January 1, 2000, was meant to be the date when life as we knew it crumbled. It was the day the computers on which we depend would fail us. Power supplies and communication networks would go into meltdown. An estimated US$3 billion went into Y2K preparations as resources were poured into an overhaul of all computer systems that used a two-digit value to represent the integral date and that, so the prediction ran, would register a logic error and freeze when 99 rolled over to 00.
But 99 rolled over to 00 and nothing happened. Those who had proposed the prophecy pointed to the success of their preparations, but countries lambasted for doing precious little in the run-up to the supposed calamity - Russia, Italy, China - survived just fine too. And remember May 22 this year? It was a date only possible, if not necessarily memorable, because the world did not end with The Rapture the day before, as predicted by members of a California-based religious group, Family Radio.
Followers of an 89-year-old self-styled "prophet", Harold Camping, spent millions advertising the "fact" that on May 21 the world would end and millions of the faithful would ascend into heaven. They appeared refreshingly unperturbed by the fact Camping had previously insisted this event would take place in 1994.
The point is that the world, and our place in it, is utterly, terrifyingly, thrillingly, unpredictable. There isn't one shot at making a change or an annual window of opportunity through which we must squeeze at midnight tonight or be forced to wait for another year. Life is elliptical, not a series of linear lurches.
Change rarely has a clear beginning or a conclusive end. The impossible happens all the time and certainties come to nothing. That is the liberating truth. And anyone in any doubt of it, this year or next, need only look up and think of Comet Lovejoy still hurtling onwards through its perilous orbit.
Laura Collins is a senior features writer at The National.