Will Comet Ison, the so-called Comet of the Century, dazzle or fizzle when it has its close encounter with the Sun? Will it survive its perilously close approach, or split into millions of fragments and, like a Thanksgiving turkey, roast? The earliest we will know of Comet Ison’s fate is this Thanksgiving Thursday, when it makes its closest approach to our Sun. The Mount Everest-sized hunk of dust and ice could be the Comet of the Century, or it could be a dud that fizzles.
That’s because Comet Ison will travel within 1.2 million km away from the Sun’s surface, which is very close, at least if you’re basically a giant flying snowball. The Sun’s gravity and immense heat might potentially be enough to melt Comet Ison faster than you can say “Frosty the Snowman.” If that’s what happens, the Sun might be spoiling what otherwise could have been a spectacular display that many scientist think might light up the night skies.
Is Comet Ison already crumbling from the Sun’s heat?
Professor Tim O’Brien, of the Jodrell Bank Observatory of the UK, compares Comet Ison to a giant snowball that’s thrown into fire, saying “it’s going to be tough for it to survive.”
But, there’s a chance that Comet Ison will manage to survive its close encounter with the Sun. If it does, in part, it would be due to the immense size of the comet, and the incredibly fast speed it’s moving at (over a million kilometers per hour). Comet Ison might whizz by the Sun close enough to melt of a bit of it, to cause its tail to blaze up, and brighten our nighttime skies, but possibly it will be travelling by so fast that the Sun won’t be able to destroy it.
Comet Ison originated from somewhere in the Dort Cloud, an extremely frigid and icy region of our Solar System, and it was discovered by Artyom Novichonok and Vitali Nevski on September 21, 2012.
If Comet Ison stays intact, this coming December it might put on a bright display that will light up the sky. If not, it the comet perishes, that would be a scientific downer.
Professor Mark Bailey of the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland has warned that Comet Ison will be facing “the worst that the Sun can throw at it.” He added that the ice of Comet Ison will start to “sublimate” (turn into gas) at an extremely rapid rate.
Then, if Comet Ison is not melted into a Mega-sized Slurpee, it might very well be pulled apart by the immense gravity of the Sun. It’s also a possibility that Comet Ison will fizzle out yet another way, by simply running out of fuel, like a gas-guzzling SUV.
According to astronomers, the nucleus, alone, of Comet Ison might be many kilometers in diameter. It could be that Comet Ison’s immense size and girth will help keep it from being destroyed.
When is the best time to see Comet Ison if it survives?
Just because we will know on Thursday around 12:30 a.m. if Comet Ison seems likely to survive or not, doesn’t mean that the comet will put on a spectacular display then. According to Dr. Robert Massey of the Royal Astronomical Society, if Comet Ison survives, “early December” would off the best opportunities of viewing it, with perhaps the best chances of seeing it with your naked eyes being on December 2-3.
According to the Austin Planetarium’s Torvald Hessel, “the news is good so far.” He is worried, though, as the comet is “heating up incredibly.”
Hessel added that comets have been very important to life on Earth, saying it’s possible “that all the water on Earth actually has its origins in comets.” Hessel is guarded, but he said that he thinks “we’re in for a good time.”
Another astronomer, Van Fernandez of the University of Central Florida, says that watching Comet Ison could turn out to be “really awesome” or it could wind up being “a big disappointment.”
Adds Kevin Walsh, a theoretical astronomer from the Southwest Research Institute, the one thing that we know about comets is “that they always surprise us.”
Emmanuel Jehin of the University of Leige in Belgium agrees, mentioning that the French have a saying that one shouldn’t make plans “based on a comet.”
Will Comet Ison turn out to be the Comet of the Century, or will it be vaporized by the Sun, torn to pieces by the sun’s gravity, or face doom in some other fashion, and fizzle out, one of history’s cosmic duds? The world will know soon, possibly as early as Thanksgiving Thursday, if Comet Ison will soon provide our night skies with spectacular display, or if it will melt faster than the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz when she has water thrown on her.
Written by: Douglas Cobb