In what appears to he a Thanksgiving miracle for astronomers, the latest video from the SOHO satellite indicates that Comet ISON has survived its trip around the Sun! This comes on the heels of reports late Thursday that suggested that the intense solar heat and gravity obliterated the comet.
Result: as of now, Christmas came early for astronomers.
Both astronomers and the general public went abuzz over Comet ISON thanks to a prediction released a year ago by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) that stated that the comet could reach magnitude -11.6, or about as bright as the Full Moon. Additionally, besides being shadow-casting bright at night, the comet would be bright enough to easily be spotted during broad daylight. If Comet ISON were to become this bright, it would not be a first, but it would still be the astronomical event of the year should the JPL’s prediction come true.
See also: the brightest comets in history
It was on Thanksgiving that the comet made its close approach to the Sun, coming within a mere (in astronomical terms) 700,000 miles from our nearest star. Is is this close pass to the Sun, and the resultant melting of the comet that, according to optimistic estimates, could push Comet ISON to magnitude -11, or about as bright as the Full Moon. Unfortunately, though, the same mechanism that could make Comet ISON comet of the decade could also destroy it, which appeared to initially be the case yesterday.
Fortunately, as of this writing, Comet ISON appears to have survived, after all. . .
According to videos coming from the SOHO observatory, Comet ISON’s nucleus appears to be intact and is continuing its brightening as it flies away from the Sun at nearly 150,000mph.
So, what could have happened?
Right now, the Sun is near the peak of activity in its regular, 11-year cycles. This means that the Sun is blasting a lot of waves of charged particles (solar wind) out into space. With Comet ISON getting so close to the Sun, it will take a direct, close-range hit should a flare aimed at the comet erupt in the coming days. As for what could happen? While anything exact is far from certain, it appears as though the solar wind could have stripped off a sizable portion of the comet’s atmosphere, thus reducing its brightness, and leading to premature expectations of its total demise. The same thing happened to Comet Encke in 2007 and, to a lesser extent, top Comet Lovejoy in 2011.
In the end, thought, the only way we’ll be able to know what Comet ISON will do is to wait and watch. Hopefully, it has survived its close encounter intact enough to put on a dazzling show when it reappears from the Sun’s glare.
Keep your fingers crossed!
As always, would-be comet watchers in the Cleveland area should be sure to keep an eye on the Cleveland weather forecast and, for hour-by-hour cloud predictions, the Cleveland Clear Sky Clock. Live somewhere else? Find a clock and see if it will be clear near you.
Good luck and clear skies to all.
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