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Hubble snaps first image of ISON, the comet of the century

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has managed to capture the first image of comet ISON.

ISON, dubbed by some as the ‘comet of the century,’ could become the brightest comet in modern history, according to astronomers.

Making its way through space at an astounding 45,000 mph, the comet is slated to swing pass the sun later this year. If it survives the close brush with death, it could put on a stunning show in November and early December.

While the comet itself is little more than three miles in diameter, the shine emitted by ISON could cause it to appear brighter than any object in the night sky, including the moon, say astronomers. The massive comet tail, which measures a stunning 57,000 miles, is among the largest in the solar system.

The image snapped by Hubble should provide astronomers with a better understanding of the comet’s composition and its chances of surviving an encounter with the sun. According to current projections, the comet is slated to come as close as 700,000 miles from the sun. If it passes too close, the comet will likely dissolve into little more than water and dust, leaving amatuer astronomers with little more than speculation on what could have been.

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While the image shows the effects of the sun’s warmth are already beginning to break down the comet, scientists say they expect to observe the ice particles vaporize in the comet’s body, resulting in an even more massive and 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 rain down from ISON’s tail.

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 1 million mph. 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.

ISON was discovered 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 worldwide have access to images taken by remote telescopes in other countries.