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

Disappointing Report on China's Economy Shakes Markets

In London and New York shares lost 3 percent, while Paris and Germany dropped around 2.4 percent More

DRC Tries Mega-Farms to Feed Population

Park at Boukanga Lonzo currently has 5,000 hectares under cultivation, crops stretching as far as eye can see, and is start of ambitious large-scale agriculture plan More

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Areas are spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, source of livelihood for fishermen and herders who have called the marshes home for generations More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs