ISON Comet 2013: A Guide For Seeing The Visitor From the Oort Cloud (Or Not)
If you're hoping to watch the ISON comet — the long anticipated, newly discovered comet — there's good news and there's bad news.
The good news is it's going to be brighter than the moon on Thanksgiving, Nov. 28, and could be one of the brightest comets to swing by in the last 100 years. The bad news is it might disolve before it gets here. According to NASA's Comet ISON Observing Campaign, "The big question that does remain — and indeed will remain unanswered until after perihelion — is whether it will disrupt and vaporize at perihelion. We lean towards thinking it will survive, but neither outcome would be an enormous surprise to us."
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"Perihelion" is a jargon term for the closest point to the sun in an elliptical orbit. It's what makes this comet so special, and it's also what threatens to destroy it. Comets that come this close to the sun, known as stargrazers, are rare, and many of them don't survive the trip. Comets are made mostly of ice and live in the Oort Cloud, a big floating sphere of icy objects almost a light-year away from the sun. (Not to be confused with rocky asteroids, which populate the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.)
The sun makes comets spectacular to look at because when they swoop in close, the solar wind blows a long, bright tail. But when they come too close, many comets break up in the sun's heat. This one might do that. According to the Observing Campaign, the ISON is a solar system newbie. "ISON is likely a very 'fresh' comet on its first visit to the inner solar system," they wrote. "All of its volatile elements may be fully intact, and it may never have felt the intensity of the sun's radiation or gravitational stresses." In other words, it might be a dud.
But that doesn't mean you shouldn't look because, on the other hand, it might be spectacular. NASA sure is looking. They organized and funded the last-minute observatory launch of a picture-taking rocket called FORTIS. On Nov. 20, barring further delays, FORTIS will take off from New Mexico for a six-minute flight. And amateur astronomers all over the world are looking, too. Several observatories are planning look-out events.
If you want to try to see ISON from home, here's what you need to know: Many observation charts are confusing, but this diagram, created by EarthSky.org, is the best one we've found for helping you spot ISON in the sky. According to EarthSky, ISON (which, by the way, stands for International Scientific Optical Network, after the telescope that found it in September 2012) will be in the eastern sky in the late part of November, steadily brightening toward Nov. 28, when it's expected to be its brightest. These charts, too, are very helpful. The blog WaitingForISON indicates, in a chart for each November day, the comet's position in the eastern sky.
One other downside of this comet (sorry, don't mean to keep killing the buzz): ISON will only appear just before dawn, about 30 minutes before sunrise. Better set your alarm. And a backup. And a backup to the backup.
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