In late 2013, expect to see a new light in the sky: the giant comet ISON, discovered last year by Russian astronomers Vitaly Nevsky and Artyom Novichonok. The comet will likely make an appearance later this year, good news for those who lack equipment but still enjoy observing changes to the night sky’s array.
With a unique orbit, astronomers think ISON originated in the very distant Oort Cloud. A cluster of ice and frozen rocks that encircles the solar system, the Oort Cloud is almost a light-year from the Sun. This distance allowed ISON to avoid damage by the powerful solar wind, which streams from the corona of the Sun at nearly one million miles per hour. However, because the ISON comet did not plunge into the inner solar system, the surface of the comet is darkened due to encounters with galactic particles. While the solar wind carries particles from the Sun, which impact planets, comets, and other celestial bodies, galactic particles originate outside of the solar system.
Just how bright the comet will become at that moment cannot yet be forecast reliably. In his 2013 Astronomical Calendar, Guy Ottewell writes: “Using what formulas we can for magnitude, we have it reaching -12.6, the brightness of the full moon!” That said, recent studies calculate that Comet ISON wil appear in the Northern hemisphere sky in late November, when it will be visible with the naked eye during day and by night it’s expected to outshine a full moon.
The ISON comet was spotted in September 2012 amidst photos taken by a telescope from the worldwide International Scientific Optical Network, or ISON, the large comet’s famous namesake. Through the ISON organization, astronomers world-wide have access to images taken by remote telescopes in other countries; for example, a Russian automatic observatory is located in New Mexico.
According to Sergei Smirnov, press secretary of the Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory in Russia, studying the surface of this comet might lead to a better understanding of the Universe’s development. Smirnov said that space vehicles should be developed to remain “on standby,” ready to approach such objects and study them. With the ongoing technological advances in space travel, this kind of research is becoming more and more likely in the future.
While ISON is currently only visible through powerful telescopes, the comet’s approach toward the Sun will create an impressive tail that will be visible by the naked eye. Ice particles will vaporize in the comet’s body, resulting in the massive, bright tail. It is anticipated to hang in Earth’s skies from October 2013 through January 2014. January 2014 may also bring a huge meteor shower as streams of debris come from the ISON comet.
However, it is possible that the ISON comet, instead of remaining intact for an impressive light show, will break apart during its approach toward the Sun. If this happens, ice particles will not form a tail, and the comet will be dimmer than expected. If the ISON comet remains intact, however, it will be visible from both of Earth’s hemispheres.