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by Larry

November, 2013

Look, Up in the Sky!

Just in time for Thanksgiving, Comet Ison, a so-called "Comet of the Century," is speeding toward the center of our Solar System and on November 28, 2013, is due to make its closest approach to the Sun, a mere 720,000 miles from its surface (less than 1% of the distance between the Sun and Earth), with a potential for cool sights in the heavenly panorama on that date as well as in the days leading up to it and to follow.

Comet Ison 11/19/13 (NASA photo)
Already the comet's tail has stretched and brightened. Amateur astronomers say without a telescope or binoculars it is just visible now in the early morning (in the region of the constellation Virgo). It's tail is about 10 million miles long, roughly 11% of the distance between our planet and the Sun, and likely to continue to lengthen. At this point, the comet's tail occupies a night sky arc of about 7 degrees, roughly the extent of the bowl of the Big Dipper. Comet Ison has been traveling sunward at a leisurely pace, a mere 50,000 miles per hour. As it reaches its perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) it will be streaking along, though, at roughly 425,000 MPH. Yet to humans on Earth it would still appear to be standing still in the early pre-dawn sky.

Astronomers think so close a grazing of the Sun may also produce added fireworks, with chunks of comet debris flying off and out behind or exploding. It is possible the entire comet may be vaporized. In any event, so close an approach of what is essentially a great ice and rock ball from the Solar System's distant surrounding Oort cloud region might be the most interesting comet phenomenon since, in July, 1994, Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 dramatically plunged into Jupiter.

For those wishing to follow along as Ison hurtles toward next week's solar rendezvous, rewarding sites are: Earthsky and NASA. Here one can find some of the latest, most interesting images as well as viewing info.

Meanwhile, Happy Thanksgiving. Nobody knows for sure what to expect, and it could just be a "ho-hum" event. Indeed, scientists are downplaying the significance of any eye candy from Comet Ison, stressing that they simply do not know what will occur as it get quite near the Sun. It could just wink out of existence as it heats up to over 5000°F. Yet others think Comet Ison's close approach to Sol will make that holiday's pre-dawn sky (to the east, on either side of where the Sun is about to rise) into a visual feast befitting the day's gustatory delights. If Ison survives the close encounter, excellent viewing will likely arise in early December. To receive the best prospects of glimpsing Comet Ison with the naked eye, go then to open areas away from city lights and look to the southwest right after sunset.

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