Prepare your telescopes, astronomy geeks, comet-hunters and stargazers. Comet ISON (officially known as C/2012 S1) or what NASA describes as the “comet of the century” and the best comet in 100 years, will reach naked eye visibility by the end of October. The comet will have its best views on Thanksgiving –November 28th– as it sky glides parallel by Mars at around 3 am, passing within 724,000 miles (1.16 million kilometers) of the Sun. ISON’s rotation axis is pointed within 30 degrees of the Sun. This means that it will graze the Sun at a distance only 1.5 times its radius. Some astronomers went as far as saying that the comet will shine as bright as the full moon, but most of these speculations are looked upon with skepticism from veteran comet-hunters and fellow astronomers.
Starting from October 15th, the comet will be one degree above Mars. It will be viewable by then using mini-telescopes and it will appear in the form of a fuzzy patch of light. Already the scientists managing the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have been snapping raw images of ISON starting September 29th when the comet was 8 million miles from Mars. More images are being taken as of October 2nd and 3rd to be later processed. ISON was initially discovered on September 21st, 2012 at the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON) in Russia thus the comet acquired its name ISON.
Comet ISON –like Mars- is currently 150 million miles (241 million kilometers) away from the sun, but it will likely brighten as icy volatiles from the comet’s nucleus heat up then burst into space when it falls deeper into the Sun’s gravitational well. This will give the observers the unique sight of the decapitated lingering tail of the comet in the morning sky sans its nucleus. The first time the Russian astronomers, Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok discovered ISON, it appeared like a fuzzy, faint object. This is the first pass for comet ISON through our solar system from Oort Cloud which is a hypothetical spherical cloud composed of billions of icy objects and lies nearly a light year away from the Sun. When the gravitational forces of the passing stars and the Milky Way increases on the spherical outer region of the Oort Cloud, some comets are dislodged from their orbits within the cloud and sent into the inner Solar System.
The High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) is one of the remote sensing instruments onboard (MRO) spacecraft. It is capable of unprecedented high resolution imaging of the Mars surface with up to 30-cm (11.811- in)/pixel sampling at a 300-kilometer (1864.114 mile) altitude.
So for the record if you want to wish on a shooting star, gaze dreamily as the ices flare up in the morning sky, with a bright, burning tail lingering behind a dying comet you’d better fasten your seat belt. ISON may not be comet of the century, but it will most certainly be comet of the year and it won’t be back on earth till another 12 million years. I’d say buy a new pair of binoculars before Thanksgiving.
Watch the video for more on comet ISON here:
Written by: Jaylan salah