Comet ISON Barely Survives Thanksgiving Solar Roast
Comet ISON is currently diving through the inner solar system, soon to make a close approach with the sun on Nov. 28. Known as a "sungrazer comet," ISON will dive deep into the sun's corona, enduring the intense multi-million degree plasma and powerful solar energy. Since the "pristine" comet was discovered in September 2012, ground-based observatories, space probes and space telescopes alike have been trying to grab a glimpse of what could be the "Comet of the Century" should it survive its solar close approach. Although many of the space missions were not designed to take snapshots of comets, it hasn't stopped many from trying and contributing valuable science as we continue to track ISON's progress. With the help ofthe NASA Comet ISON Observing Campaign
, nine space missions are listed as providing observations of Comet ISON. More will inevitably join the fun, but here's the story so far.PHOTOS: Comet ISON: 5 Things You Should Know
On Jan. 17-18, 2013, NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft imaged Comet ISON during its deep space sojourn from a distance of nearly 500 million miles. From this early observation mission scientists were able to deduce the comet tail was already more than 40,000 miles long, despite the fact it was around the orbit of Jupiter.ANALYSIS: NASA Probe Spies Incoming Comet ISON
Shortly after NASA's Deep Impact (EPOXI) mission imaged ISON, mission managers of NASA's Swift space observatory commanded the mission to take a look. Although Swift is not designed to observe comets (it is, after all a gamma-ray observatory!), it used its Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope (UVOT) to gain a valuable insight to the comet and its growing coma and tail.
NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope is more at home taking snapshots of the infrared emissions of distant star-forming regions, but that doesn't mean it can't be used to observe comets. Seen here, Comet ISON was observed in two infrared wavelengths on June 13
NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Of all the space observatories, the Hubble Space Telescope is able to take some of the most spectacular images of the incoming comet, monitoring ISON as it approaches the sun, watching for any sign of breaking up.
On Oct. 8, 2013, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was commanded to slew away from it's Mars-facing orientation and direct its HiRISE camera at ISON. Although the comet was exhibiting little activity, HiRISE managed to pick it out of the dark.
During close approach with Mars, it wasn't only the MRO that snapped Comet ISON. The veteran Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SoHO) was able to detect the comet with its wide-angle Solar Wind ANisotropies, or SWAN, instrument.
On Oct. 28, 2013, Comet ISON drifted into the field of view of one of NASA's twin solar observatories, STEREO B. One of two solar satellites, STEREO B is following Earth in its orbit (while STEREO A is leading) with a unique view from the far side of the sun.
On Nov. 4, NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory got in on the ISON imaging act, analyzing the structure of the comet. Overall, ISON's X-ray revealed it's a pretty typical comet, shedding 16 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of water per day.
On Nov. 18 and 19 it wasn't only Comet ISON that passed the orbit of Mercury, Comet Encke did the inner solar system dash, too. Earlier in the month, NASA's Mercury orbiter MESSENGER was able to image ISON and Encke as they approached, reminding us there is usually more than one comet flying through the solar system at any given time.ANALYSIS: Fly With ISON In Stunning Comet Simulation
As the U.S. celebrated Thanksgiving Day, Comet ISON suffered a pretty severe cosmic flesh wound as it flew perilously close to the sun. Many concluded that the dirty snowball had vaporized, but, it seems, reports of Comet ISON’s death are greatly exaggerated.
In observations by an armada of solar telescopes, ISON’s perihelion (point of closest approach in the comet’s orbit) was closely tracked and in the run-up to the grand Thanksgiving event at 1:45 p.m. EST, it seemed that the much-hyped “Comet of the Century” had turned into the Turkey of the Century.
As the comet took the plunge into the sun’s corona, images from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SoHO) depicted a bright Comet ISON with huge tail and hopes were high for its survival. However, as it passed a little over a million miles from the sun’s “surface” (the photosphere), the comet’s nucleus noticeably shrunk and appeared to vaporize.
But after several hours of confusion and searching for ISON in SoHO, Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) and Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) images, a noticeable trail of debris could be seen as the comet carried out its solar slingshot — adding weight to the idea that the comet had undergone catastrophic tidal stresses and solar heating, causing it to break apart.
Remarking on the debris stream, NASA’s Tony Phillips of Spaceweather.com said: “It could be a small fragment of Comet ISON’s nucleus or perhaps a “headless comet” — a stream of debris marking the remains of the comet’s disintegrated core.”
Then, in some striking images released by SoHO’s LASCO instrument (pictured top), which has a wide-angle view of the sun’s lower atmosphere (the corona), a very comet-like object appears to have survived after perihelion.
“Now, in the latest LASCO C3 images, we are seeing something beginning to gradually brighten up again,” said astrophysicist Karl Battams, of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, in a NASA Comet ISON Observing Campaign (CIOC) blog update. “One could almost be forgiven for thinking that there’s a comet in the images!”
Has Comet ISON succumbed to its fiery encounter, breaking up, leaving only a few pieces of ex-comet behind? Or has it really risen from the dead, re-brightening and set to dazzle our night skies as it swings back out into deep space? It’s too early to tell, but it’s also too early to write ISON off.
“We have a whole new set of unknowns, and this ridiculous, crazy, dynamic and unpredictable object continues to amaze, astound and confuse us to no end,” said Battems.
Watch ISON as it approached the sun on Nov. 28:
Image: A SoHO LASCO observation of Comet ISON shortly after perihelion — a component of the cometary nucleus appears to be re-brightening after close approach. Credit: NASA/ESA