Comet Ison

Comet Ison

On the 21st of September in 2012, at approximately 6p.m., two astronomers attached to the Russian-based International Scientific Optical Network (ISON), Belarusian Vitali Nevski and Russian Artyom Novichok, using a 0.4-meter reflecting telescope and the CoLiTec software (an automated asteroid detection program), discovered what is now considered as potentially the most significant new comet over the last ten years.

After receiving multiple confirmations from eight other observatories over the next three days, including the Faulkes Telescope Project in the United Kingdom, the Remanzacco Observatory in Italy and the Observatory, in Mayhill, New Mexico, the discovery was officially announced to the world on September 24, 2012, by the Minor Planet Center.

The +18 magnitude comet, now officially designated as Ison C/2012 S1, immediately drew the attention of the community and the press.

Projections revealed that the perihelion (closest orbital distance to the sun) of Ison C/2012 S1 will peak to within 0.012AU (1 AU = ~150 million kilometers) of the sun on November 28, 2013, making it one of the closest ever observable comet to the sun.

Trajectory of Comet ISON (C/2012 S1 ISON)

STEREO A and B OrbitViewer
Orbit Viewer

A Primer on Comets

Comets are bright, star-like small solar system bodies that are easily identified by their two most distinguishing features once they enter into the inner solar system:

  • A scarcely visible, temporary false atmosphere that lends a glowing appearance.

  • A tail-like aspect caused by the effect of the sun on the dusts and gases present on these comets. These tails range anywhere from several dozen to hundreds of millions of kilometers in length.

Comets are usually made of ice, dust, ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide and a number of other minerals in trace quantities. Relatively fragile, comets regularly disintegrate as they approach the sun or any planetary bodies. However, there are a few that can withstand the heat and gravitational forces and would pass our solar system with nary a scratch. These comets are typically called a periodical comet, as they would inevitably enter into an orbit and return to the solar system at a future date.

As of January 1st 2013, there have been 9,539 small solar bodies discovered by astronomers, both professional and amateurs. Out of these, 2,544 have been identified as comets.

Comets are rarely visible to the naked eye, and can only be seen with a telescope. However, over the years, there have been several dozen that were close or large enough to become visible in the night sky. A few were even visible during the day. Some of the most memorable comets in recent times include the Haley’s Comet and Elenin, both highly publicized events for very different reasons.

The discovery of Comet Ison C/2012 S1 on September 21, 2012, has however, caused a level of excitement very rarely seen within the stargazing community - and the general population as well.

Additionally, Ison C/2012 S1’s aphelion (closest orbital distance to earth) is projected to peak to within 0.4AU of earth in early 2014, ensuring that it would be visible to the naked eye to observers located in the northern hemisphere. There is growing speculation, however, that the comet would, in fact, be brighter than the moon, and that it will even be visible during the day.

Astronomers caution against raising too much expectations for the Oort-Cloud escapee. The original projections were made when the comet was still in the vicinity of Jupiter, and by the time it completes the remaining 2 million kilometers journey, the fundamentals may gradually evolve into something a little different.

Nonetheless, if the projections prove to be correct, Ison C/2012 S1 could potentially cause severe damages to earth and space-based electronic equipment. A large enough cosmic burst, solar storm, or electromagnetic storm could even shut down the hundreds of orbiting satellites above the planet. Even a small scale reaction may affect global land-based communications.

The breathtaking beauty of comet Ison C/2012 S1 may well turn out to be one of the most costly experiences for the planet; and this is before we take into account the apocalyptic Nibiru theories of the ancient astronauts’ brigade.

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