ISON's Ghost: 'Comet of the Century' is Now an Ex-Comet
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
Sad news, comet fans: ISON is no more. It’s a vaporized husk of its former self. A sublimated dirty snowball. Comet ISON is an ex-comet and this time it’s not playing.
This sad turn of events is brought to you by the joint NASA/ESA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SoHO)’s LASCO instrument that gives a wide-angle view of the sun’s atmosphere (pictured above). For the duration of Comet ISON’s close approach to our nearest star, LASCO has been carefully tracking the comet’s progress. After many heart-stopping hours post-perihelion on Nov. 28, space experts nearly gave up hope — ISON had vanished from LASCO’s view, apparently not surviving the sun’s extreme tidal forces and powerful radiation.
But then, just as the U.S. was recovering from Thanksgiving turkey and wine, ISON re-energized; a component of its roasted nucleus had survived the turmoil and was brightening.
Unfortunately, the brightening was short-lived. Despite a couple of days of hope, Comet ISON’s nucleus has all but disappeared, leaving a ghostly wisp of dust behind.
The “Comet of the Century” is now, officially, the Turkey of the Century.
“Among experts, a consensus is building that the comet broke apart shortly before perihelion (closest approach to the sun),” writes Tony Phillips, NASA astronomer and curator of Spaceweather.com.
Like the countless sungrazing comets that have come before it, ISON succumbed to the close solar pass. Although hopes were high that the comet would survive the plunge, no one really knew what ISON was going to do. As a “virgin” comet from the Oort Cloud (a hypothetical cloud of cometary objects approximately one light-year from the sun), this was ISON’s first visit to the inner solar system. With little information on the comet’s composition, cometary fragmentation was always a possibility.
All that remains of Comet ISON seems to be a fan-shaped debris field of small fragments of the once-mighty cometary nucleus, each shard frantically venting the remaining ices into space. Any hope of seeing a dazzling naked-eye comet just in time for Christmas is vaporizing faster than the sublimating ISON fragments that now litter interplanetary space.
Image: Sequence of observations by SoHO’s LASCO instrument of Comet ISON post-perihelion. Credit: NASA/ESA