A ‘super’ comet shining brighter than the full moon is expected to pass by the Earth towards the end of 2013, researchers are predicting.
The newly discovered comet, comet ISON, is predicted to pass within 1.2 million miles from the center of the sun on Nov. 28, 2013, according to astronomer Donald Yeomans, the head of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“As the comet approaches, heat from the sun will vaporize ices in its body, creating what could be a spectacular tail that is visible in Earth’s night sky without telescopes or even binoculars from about October 2013 through January 2014.”
For that to happen though, the comet will need to survive. Which it may not, it’s possible that it may break apart as it approaches the sun.
Celestial travelers such Comet ISON come from the Oort Cloud, which is a ‘sea’ of frozen ice and rocks that encircle the solar system some 50,000 times farther away from the Sun than the Earth. These objects sometimes knock each other out of orbit and on a trip to the inner solar system where we live.
“On Sept. 21, two amateur astronomers from Russia spotted what appeared to be a comet in images taken by a 16-inch (0.4-meter) telescope that is part of the worldwide International Scientific Optical Network, or ISON, from which the object draws its name.”
“The object was slow and had a unique movement. But we could not be certain that it was a comet because the scale of our images are quite small and the object was very compact,” astronomer Artyom Novichonok, one of the discoverers, wrote in a comets email list hosted by Yahoo.
The researchers “followed up the next night with a bigger telescope at the Maidanak Observatory in Uzbekistan. Other astronomers did likewise, confirming the object, located beyond Jupiter’s orbit in the constellation Cancer, was indeed a comet.”
The path that Comet ISON is following is strikingly similar to the Great Comet of 1680. Which was an incredibly bright comet, visible for months, that could be seen in broad daylight.
“The projected orbit of comet ISON is so similar to the 1680 comet that some scientists are wondering if they are fragments from a common parent body.”
“Comet ISONcould be the brightest comet seen in many generations – brighter even than the full moon,” wrote British astronomer David Whitehouse in The Independent.
“In 2013, Earth has two shots at a comet show. Comet Pan-STARRS is due to pass by the planet in March, eight months before ISON’s arrival.”
“The last comet to dazzle Earth’s night-time skies was Comet Hale-Bopp, which visited in 1997. Comet 17P/Holmes made a brief appearance in 2007.”
Some background on what a ‘Great Comet’ is:
“A Great Comet is a comet that becomes exceptionally bright. There is no official definition; often the term will be attached to comets that become bright enough to be noticed by casual observers who are not actively looking for them, and become well known outside the astronomical community. Great Comets are rare; on average only one will appear in a decade, sometimes less.”
“The vast majority of comets are never bright enough to be seen by the naked eye, and generally pass through the inner Solar System unseen by anyone except astronomers. However, occasionally a comet may brighten to naked eye visibility, and even more rarely it may become as bright or brighter than the brightest stars. The requirements for this to occur are: a large and active nucleus, a close approach to the Sun, and a close approach to the Earth. A comet fulfilling all three of these criteria will certainly be spectacular. Sometimes, a comet failing on one criterion will still be extremely impressive. For example, Comet Hale–Bopp had an exceptionally large and active nucleus, but did not approach the Sun very closely at all, yet it still became an extremely famous and well observed comet. Equally, Comet Hyakutake was a rather small comet, but appeared bright because it passed extremely close to the Earth.”