FOR THE WEEK OF DEC. 02, 2013
Ancient comet that circled the sun could create a bright sky show here
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Something special happened far above Earth on Thanksgiving, captivating astronomers. It may sound like a sci-fi movie, but is a real-life phenomenon: A comet that's over 4 billion years old spun around the sun and emerged on the other side as if propelled from a slingshot. Spacecraft from NASA and the European Space Agency watched the ancient comet, named ISON by scientists, plunge toward the sun. Its tail has been visible for a while, and some parts apparently survived last Thursday's hot close encounter. It could put on a spectacular, multi-week sky show in our Northern Hemisphere.
Comets are giant snowballs of frozen gases, rock and dust that come from the solar system's edge and can be several miles in diameter. When they get close enough to see, scientists study them for clues about how our solar system formed. "It now looks like some chunk of ISON's nucleus has indeed made it through the solar corona," Karl Battams of the Naval Research Laboratory said a day after Thanksgiving. "Now that it has emerged and started to brighten, we need to observe it for a few days to get a feel for its behavior."
"It certainly appears as if there is an object there that is emitting material," says Alan Fitzsimmons, an astronomer in Northern Ireland who specializes in comets and asteroids (more solid space rocks that have no tail). "This is what makes science interesting. If we knew what was going to happen, it wouldn't be interesting." A smaller comet named Lovejoy grazed the sun and survived in 2011, but fell apart a couple of days later.
Explaining the name: Two Russian astronomers first spotted Comet ISON in September 2012 and named it after their night-sky survey program, the International Scientific Optical Network -- observatories in 10 countries that track objects in space
Scientist says: "This has been one of the most extraordinary comets we have ever encountered, and just goes to reiterate how beautiful, dynamic and exciting our universe is." -- Karl Battams, Naval Research Lab in Washington, DC
Professor says: "Comet ISON has the potential to be among the brightest comets of the last 50 years." -- Dennis Bodewits, astronomer at University of Maryland
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