ISON Comet Update: Are You Ready For The Galactic Fireworks? [PHOTOS]

As the ISON comet moves closer to the sun, astronomers prepare for a show.

By Kendra Pierre-Louis on November 19, 2013 11:39 AM EST

 NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage
NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage

On Thanksgiving Day, remember to take a moment to look up from your dinner plate, pull yourself away from televised football, head outside, and look up to the heavens. That's because November 28th, 2013 is roughly when the ISON comet, a comet first identified in fall of 2012 by two amateur Russian astronomers, will finally be brighter than the moon. The three-to-four mile in diameter mass of dust and ice has been hurtling through the frigid vacuum of space for four billion years. As it moves closer to our sun, ISON is poised to put on a visual display that is slated to be one for the record books.

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There are a few particularly exciting things about ISON, which gets its name because it was first spotted in pictures taken by Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok of Russia using the International Scientific Optical Network telescope. First, it's a sungrazing comet. While comets, which are chunks of rocks and ice left over after the formation of stars and planets billions of years ago and kept in motion from the planets and stars it passes (hence the nickname "dirty snowballs") are pretty common, sungrazing comets, or comets whose orbits force them to pass our sun at  perihelion, are rare. Most sungrazers rarely survive the extreme heat and gravity that our solar system throws at them and fizzle within a few hours. ISON is predicted to keep brightening our skies for weeks. 

TRAPPIST/E. Jehin/ESO, CC BY-SA 3.0
TRAPPIST/E. Jehin/ESO, CC BY-SA 3.0

In addition, because ISON was spotted while it was still pretty far out — further out than Jupiter — ISON has given scientists the unique opportunity to study it not just for days, not for weeks, not even for months but for over a full year. Further, because of the shape and structure of ISON's orbit, it may be what astronomers call a "newly arrived" comet coming from the darkest, most distant edges of our solar system, and potentially bringing with it not only a wealth of information about comets but about the nature of space itself. Finally, ISON does all of this while putting on one heck of a light show.

NASA, Marshall, 11/08/13
NASA, Marshall, 11/08/13

Who wouldn't want to watch?

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