November 26, 2013
How Comet ISON Is Spending Thanksgiving With The Sun: Exclusive
[ Watch the Video: SOHO Sees Comet ISON Appear ]
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Comet ISON will be spending Thanksgiving Day within the sun’s grasp and it is this moment and those leading up to it that will help define the comet’s future.
The journey of Comet ISON has been a cinematic one, particularly because its existence was not even known until September of last year. Since then, the comet has garnered international attention from amateur and professional astronomers around the world; and while much is known about the comet even more is unknown.
This week, the comet is embarking on its “will it or won’t it” part of its storied journey, during which it will either survive its perihelion or it won’t. Perihelion is the point in the orbit that an object like a comet or planet is nearest to the sun.
With the comet approaching the sun’s grasp, redOrbit reached out to Karl Battams, an astrophysicist and computational scientist at the US Naval Research Laboratory, to understand more about what is going on with ISON this week.
“As ISON is approaching the Sun, it's experiencing increasing amounts of solar radiation, and physical stresses from the Sun's gravitational pull,” Battams, who is part of NASA’s Comet ISON Observing Campaign (CIOC), told redOrbit in an email. “Its surface is vaporizing at a tremendous rate, releasing the dust and gases trapped there. However, this process of vaporization is actually helping to keep the comet's nucleus from rapidly melting, as the vaporizing material is carrying solar energy away from the nucleus. It's fundamentally the same process as when human's sweat to keep cool.”
Battams had also spoken with redOrbit this past September to quash rumors that Comet ISON was going to fizzle out. He also downplayed the media hype that ISON would be the "comet of the century." While a lot is still unknown about this comet, Mr. Battams knew even back then that this week was going to be special for observers.
“When ISON reaches perihelion, it should prove to be a spectacular object in many of our space-based satellites, and should return some wonderful images and movies,” he told redOrbit in September. “On top of this, the science return from such a breadth of observations will be extraordinary, regardless of how the comet ‘performs’.”
Battams said in a blog post on CIOC they have absolutely no idea whether or not this comet will survive its encounter with the Sun, or how it might look in December if it does. While the path of ISON is unclear, what is clear is the comet has provided spectacular data to the scientific community.
“I don't think there have ever been so many eyes focused so intently on one comet. We have been scrutinizing its every move with space-based telescopes and observatories, professional ground-based observatories and countless scores of amateur astronomers. We have been doing this for months now - over a year in fact - and have amassed an extraordinary volume of data, observations and images,” Battams told redOrbit. “Comets Halley and Hale-Bopp may be the only comets that rival ISON in terms of the volume of observations, but neither of those had both the space-based armada and the ground-troops in the form of masses of amateur astronomers with cutting-edge telescopes and amazing optics.”
The CIOC Team is planning a one-day follow-up meeting to discuss the state of ISON post-perihelion on December 6. During this meeting, attendees will be given opportunities to present data and preliminary results about the comet.
“We just live in a different era now. The internet enables so much more than was previously possible, and professional astronomers and scientists are seeing the huge benefit of crowd-sourcing and citizen science,” Battams told redOrbit.