Comet Ison 2013

Comet ISON

Let’s face it, for us naked-eye stargazers that don’t have the luxury of fancy, expensive telescopes Comet ISON was a fizzer. It was like having the promise of a creaming soda spider, but with melted ice cream and hot, flat soda. And, that’s sort of what happened with comet ISON.

Fire versus ice

In November, we looked to the sky to watch this sungrazer ski across the Sun. Unfortunately it was a little too close and melted. Already melting as it neared, comet ISON disappeared into the Sun. What came out the other side was barely a resemblance of the comet that went into it.

Comet ISON discovery

This icy comet was first discovered by the Russians. Astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok from the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON) found the comet in September 2012.  It was out near Jupiter at the time and barely a speck in the sky.

The speck visible as far away as Jupiter gave astronomers hope that ISON could put on a good show. It appeared to have a large nucleus somewhere between 1 to 10 kilometers in range. It already emitted significant light indicating the icy world was already warming up spewing dust and gas for its rendezvous with the Sun.

ISON’s predicted journey

In January 2013, speculation over the comet’s future was already skeptical.  While it was hoped that the sungrazer would survive and be visible even in the daylight in late 2013 – early 2014, Don Yeomans of NASA’s Near-Earth Object program was skeptical. “Comets are notoriously unpredictable,” he stated in an interview.

ISON’s remains

It became much clearer after observing comet ISON’s ill-fated rendezvous that ISON’s surviving remnants are not much more than rubble. 

It is possible there could be small chunks of the comet left, perhaps up to a metre in length.  Those chunks are not enough to give us the light show of the century without the comet’s nucleus which did not survive the journey. These remains, as Karl Battams explains in his latest blog post on the CIOC website, will continue on the same orbit as ISON and disappear out of the solar system.

Comet ISON 9 days to its dance with the Sun.
Comet ISON as it looked 9 days away from its final destination with the Sun — Credit: NASA/MSFC/Aaron Kingery

But wait, there could be more

It is possible that in mid-January, the Earth will move through or come close to a dust cloud. It was left behind by comet ISON before it caught up to the Sun. Creation of dust clouds are a common side effect of comets. Earth moves through these regularly with little to no disturbance.  The most spectacular of these are the Perseids meteor showers seen mostly in the Northern hemisphere during July – August.

Veteran meteor researcher Paul Wiegert of the University of Western Ontario has been examining computer models of comet ISON’s tail during 2013. Predictions indicate that Earth’s orbit will pass through the dust clouds made by ISON around the 12th  January 2014.

Chances that we will have a spectacular meteor shower are slim. There is some discussion regarding a rare light show at the poles. Most likely the dust will just float down through the atmosphere over a few months and we won’t notice a thing.

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