September 25, 2013
Amateur Astronomers Can Now Observe An Approaching Comet ISON
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Comet ISON is getting closer and closer to making its close encounter with the sun on Thanksgiving Day, and amateur astronomers are gearing up to take every opportunity they can to observe the celestial object between now and then.
The comet's brush with the sun on November 28 could either turn it into a sight for all to see, or destroy the icy visitor. So while we hope for the best, astronomers still should be taking every advantage to view ISON while they can.
"Comet ISON is approaching Mars in the pre-dawn sky," astronomer Carey Lisse, the head of NASA's Comet ISON Observing Campaign (CIOC), said in a statement. "It is invisible to the naked eye, but within reach of backyard telescopes."
Karl Battams, an astrophysicist and computational scientist at the US Naval Research Laboratory, told redOrbit in an interview earlier this month that the chances of Comet ISON surviving its brush with the sun are 50/50.
“If it does survive perihelion — odds of which are roughly 50/50 though we’re tentatively leaning towards a scenario where it will survive that close brush with the Sun — then it will hopefully be naked-eye visible in early December, and visible in telescopes and binoculars throughout most of December and perhaps into January,” Battams said in that interview.
If and when Comet ISON emerges from the sun's glare after Thanksgiving, it will be positioned just right in the Northern Hemisphere for observers to witness with the naked-eye. Observers will be able to pick out the comet in the morning and evening sky throughout December 2013.
In 2011, Comet Lovejoy brushed up against the sun and put on a great show for people in the Southern Hemisphere. Matthew Knight of the Lowell Observatory told NASA that ISON is likely a few times bigger than Lovejoy was, so it has the potential to "become an impressive sun grazer."
Lisse said he hopes that every telescope on Earth will be trained on the comet in October and November.
Astrophotographer Pete Lawrence of Selsey UK is meeting Lisse's wishes by keeping his telescope on the comet.
"I photographed Comet ISON on Sept. 15th using my 4-inch refractor," reports Lawrence. "The comet's tail is nicely on view even through this relatively small instrument."
In mid-September the comet was glowing like a 14th magnitude star, which is dimmer than some forecasters expected. However, Battams says that although astronomers would love it to be a bit brighter, "it's doing just fine."
"I'd say it's still on course to become a very eye-catching object," Battams said in a NASA statement.