Big sun-diving Comet ISON might be spectacular in 2013
Astronomers have discovered a new comet. It is currently moving in front of the stars of the constellation Cancer the Crab. It’s out beyond Jupiter’s orbit still, now, but it’s heading for a close encounter with the sun in 2013. Called C/2012 S1 (ISON) by astronomers, its orbital characteristics indicate it might become a very bright object in Earth’s sky, beginning in November 2013. If so, all of us around the globe should be able to see it late next year.
At its discovery in September 2012, Comet C2012 S1 (ISON) was beyond the orbit of the 5th planet from our sun, Jupiter. It will sweep into the inner solar system in 2013. This is a false color image of the comet, showing the coma surrounding the comet’s central nucleus, via Remanzacco Observatory.
This comet’s orbit will bring it near the sun in 2013. By November 2013, it might become a bright comet to the eye! Image via NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Eastern European and Russian astronomers announced the new comet on September 24, 2012. Discovery magnitude was 18.8 – in other words, extremely faint. Vitali Nevski of Vitebsk, Belarus and Artyom Novichonok of Kondopoga, Russia spotted the comet on CCD images obtained on September 21 with a 0.4-m f/3 Santel reflector of the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON) near Kislovodsk, Russia. Afterwards, astronomers at Remanzacco Observatory in Italy confirmed the comet’s presence with the image above.
No doubt about it … comets have a mystique. Once considered omens of doom, we now know them as icy visitors from the outer solar system that sweep near our sun, then disappear again into the depths of space, perhaps never to return. People get excited about comets. They are temporary visitors to our region of the solar system. This comet will be no exception.
In November 2013, Comet ISON will pass less than 1.8 million kilometers (1.1 million miles) from the sun’s surface. That sounds like a lot, but it’s actually quite close – over 100 times closer to the sun than Earth. This near sweep past the sun might keep distant enough to prevent its breaking to pieces, as sometimes happens. If all goes well, the terrific heating Comet ISON will undergo when it’s closest to our parent star might turn the comet into a bright naked-eye object.
Comet Lovejoy was a sight to behold from Earth’s Southern Hemisphere in late 2011. Here the comet is reflected in the water of Mandurah Esturary near Perth on December 21, 2011. Image Credit: Colin Legg.
Of course, comets don’t always live up to expectations. Comet ISON might break up into fragments, as the much-hyped Comet Elenin did around August 2011.
On the other hand, Comet ISON might survive its encounter with the sun as Comet Lovejoy did in late 2011. If so, it might go on to illuminate our skies with its beauty. And there is one thing we can count on. That is, if Comet ISON does become a bright comet, visible to the eyes of watching earthlings, it will be beautiful. All bright comets are.
If it does survive its close encounter with the sun in 2013, and if it does become bright enough to be seen with the eye, astronomers say Comet ISON’s best appearance won’t be limited to just one hemisphere as Comet Lovejoy’s was. It’ll be visible to all of us in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres for at least a couple of months, from about November 2013 through January 2014. If so … worth the wait!
Bottom line: The comet called C/2012 S1 (ISON) by astronomers is out beyond Jupiter’s orbit now. But it’s headed for a close encounter with our sun in 2013 and might become a spectacular sight from all of Earth around November of next year.