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

US Imposes Sanctions on Alleged Honduran Drug Gang

Treasury department alleges Los Valles group is responsible for smuggling tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine into US each month More

At 91, Marvel Creator Stan Lee Continues to Expand his Universe

Company's chief emeritus hopes to interest new generation of children in superheroes of all shapes and sizes by publishing content across multiple media platforms More

Photogallery New Drug Protects Against Virus in Ebola Family

Study by researchers at University of Texas Medical Branch, Tekmira Pharmaceuticals is first looking at drug's effectiveness after onset of symptoms More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improvingi
X
Carol Pearson
August 19, 2014 11:43 PM
The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.
Video

Video For Obama, Racial Violence is Personal Issue

The racial violence in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson is presenting U.S. President Barack Obama with an issue to which he has a deep personal connection. To many Americans, Obama's election as America's first black president marked a turning point in race relations in the United States, and Obama has made ending the violence a policy priority. On Monday he issued a new call for calm and understanding. Luis Ramirez reports from the White House.
Video

Video Clinton-Obama Relationship Could Impact 2016 Election

President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have a long and complicated relationship. That relationship took another turn recently when Clinton criticized the president’s foreign policy. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports there is renewed attention on the Clinton-Obama relationship as Hillary Clinton considers running for
Video

Video Iran Looks to Maintain Influence in Baghdad With New Shia PM

Washington and Tehran share the goal of stopping Syrian-based militants in Iraq. But experts say it's Iran, not the United States, that will most influence how the new government in Baghdad approaches internal reforms and the war in Syria. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns has the story.

AppleAndroid