Did Comet ISON Survive Passage Near Sun? New Images Reveal Possibility That It Endured Star's Heat and Gravity

By Ajit Jha on November 29, 2013 8:12 AM EST

Comet ISON near the sun on Nov. 28, 2013
This image from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory shows the sun, but no Comet ISON was seen. A white plus sign shows where the Comet should have appeared. It is likely that the comet did not survive the trip. (Photo: NASA/SDO)

Comet ISON, first spotted in September 2012 and catalogued as C/2012 S1, has since been on the radar of NASA's vast fleet of spacecraft and telescope. On Nov. 28, 2013 (Thanksgiving day) the approaching comet was expected to finally sling shot around the sun, in our solar system. At the time, two days ago, it was hypothesized that the comet's journey through solar system could end for one of two reasons: First, the combined heat and gravity of the sun could break and disintegrate the comet entirely. The second possibility was that the comet could turn around and speed out of the solar system, never to come back.

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At it's nearest, there was a distance of just 1.2 km between the sun and ISON, at which time the comet's ices might have rapidly vaporized under the heat of over 2000C temperature, while the gravity of the star would be capable of pulling and squeezing the star completely.

After Thanksgiving, scientists declared the comet dead when it did not emerge from behind the sun with the expected brightness. A dull smudge was all that could be seen in telescopic images leading to the assumption of its complete annihilation, from its nucleus to itstail. Corey S. Powell, writing in Discover Magazine, had also speculated upon the death of Comet ISON. "Now it seems like the comet may in fact be in the middle of a catastrophic disintegration, based on the latest images from NASA's SOHO observatory. In this view, the comet's tail splits in two, and the trail of the comet seems to shrink and peter out closer to the sun. It's not clear yet what is happening, but this sure looks like the comet's last act," he wrote on Nov.28

However, all hopes were not lost for astronomers, when recent pictures showed small dull fragment of the coment brightening up. They are keeping their fingers crossed that the comet may have survived its brush with the sun. They should know soon — maybe even later today. They're wathcing to see whether the small, speck-like imagery of ISON continues to brighten further or simply fizzle out altogether.

Writing on the NASA Comet ISON Observing Campaign blog, Karl Battams states: "It does appear that at least some small fraction of Ison has remained in one piece and is actively releasing material. We have no idea how big this nucleus is, if there is indeed one. If there is a nucleus, it is still too soon to tell how long it will survive. If it does survive for more than a few days, it is too soon to tell if the comet will be visible in the night sky."

The European Space Agency, among the first organizations to call the death of the ISON comet, was also compelled to re-assess the situation. A small part of is nucleus could possibly be intact, according to experts. However, it is too early to speculate how much of the once 2 km-wide hunk of dirty ice that ISON is might have survived.

The video below shows images from NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory and the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory show Comet ISON growing dim as it made the journey around the sun. The comet is believed to have broken up and evaporated.



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