News / Science & Technology

Astronomers Awaiting Comet ISON's Year-End Spectacular

Comet ISON is shown in this NASA handout image photographed by the Hubble telescope on April 10, 2013.Comet ISON is shown in this NASA handout image photographed by the Hubble telescope on April 10, 2013.
x
Comet ISON is shown in this NASA handout image photographed by the Hubble telescope on April 10, 2013.
Comet ISON is shown in this NASA handout image photographed by the Hubble telescope on April 10, 2013.
Rick Pantaleo
Excitement has been growing in recent months over the approach of Comet ISON.  Like other comets, this chunk of rock and ice is following a long, elliptical orbit around the Sun, and like other comets, when it nears the Sun later this year, its trailing stream of dust and vapor will catch the sunlight and become a long, luminous, tail. Many astronomers are predicting that when this celestial traveler sweeps by us later this year, it could turn out to be ‘the comet of the century.’
 
Comet ISON was discovered on September 21, 2012, by two amateur astronomers in Russia, using a reflecting telescope at an observatory of the International Scientific Optical Network. The stargazers then named the new comet after the network’s acronym, ISON. It’s officially known as C/2012 S1.
 
Dennis Bodewits, an astronomer at the University of Maryland who has been keeping a close eye on ISON, explains that excitement about its approach has been building as observers worked out the comet’s trajectory:
 
“We started seeing Comet ISON by the end of last year, when it was really far away from Earth and the Sun, and it was already really clearly active. And people started reconstructing its orbit and figuring out what was up with this comet. If you do this and you reason forward in time, we think that this comet will be really bright by the time it gets close to the Sun.”
 
Bodewits and other astronomers following ISON recently used resources such as NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the Swift satellite to get a good look at the comet as it makes its way through our solar system. Bodewits says he was especially eager to learn how big the comet’s nucleus is.
 
“And this is important to know [since it’s an indication of] whether it will survive its close approach to the Sun.  If you have a very big object, it’s more likely that some of it will remain once it flies by the Sun.  The reason why you have to do that now is because as it becomes more active there’s this giant cloud of dust and gas that you cannot see through and you cannot see the nucleus directly. This is a problem that we always have with comets.”
 
So how big is ISON’s nucleus? Bodewits surmises that it’s not very large.
 
“What Hubble found is that the comet was smaller than they could see. That means that it’s at most four kilometers, or two and a half miles, in diameter, which means that it’s relatively small.”
 
A ‘Sun-grazing comet’

ISON is classified as a ‘Sun-grazing comet,’ since its calculated elliptical trajectory will bring it very close to the Sun before it is flung back into deep space by the Sun’s gravity.
 
“It’s a fresh comet from the Oort clouds, where comets reside and when this orbit was done it was also clear that this comet will get within two solar radii off the surface of the Sun, which is really close to the Sun.”
 
Since ISON will be flying so close to the Sun, Bodewits says there are concerns that the powerful gravitational forces could cause the comet to break apart.
 
“As for now we simply don’t know what will happen. And, that’s one of the things that make this comet so unique. We never see comets that appear this far away. We can then follow it all the way in until it gets so close to the Sun and we’re all speculating on whether it will survive or not or break up as it does. So, this is another opportunity for us to learn more about the internal structure of comets.”
 
Astronomers believe ISON is going to put on a spectacular display this November, possibly becoming so bright that it will be visible in the daytime sky. Bodewits says ISON is already gearing up for the show:
 
“If a comet is very active, which means it produces a lot of gas, it will kick up a lot of dust and that dust then makes it a spectacular comet. ISON is far away from the Sun, but it is already kicking up a lot of dust, both literally and figuratively.”
 
The excitement over ISON follows a number of recent comet sightings, each of which generated lots of advance media buzz, but few of which lived up to the hype. One exception came six years ago with Comet McNaught, which was also known as the Great Comet of 2007.  Astronomers say the comet was the brightest that had been seen in over 40 years.
 
But then there were disappointments, such as Comet Kohoutek back in 1973, which  had been hyped by the media as the "comet of the century." Kohoutek sputtered out after its arrival and was considered by most to be a total let-down; possibly because it started to break up during a close approach to the Sun just before its Earth flyby.  Comet Kohoutek became the butt of many comedians’ jokes back then.
 
And Halley’s Comet, one of the best-known and well-documented celestial visitors, returned to much fanfare in 1986, but because its orbit took it twice as far from Earth as during its celebrated 1910 visit, Halley’s appeared only dimly in the night sky.
 
Will Comet ISON live up to the hype now building for its arrival later this year, when it could be visible in many part of the world?  We’ll just have to wait and see whether ISON will be "the comet of the century," or just another chunk of ice and rock slipping quietly through our cosmic neighborhood.

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs