Astronomers Hope for Brighter Tail as Comet Nears the Sun

Nov 18, 2013

A comet new to the inner solar system from the distant Oort Cloud has made its way into Earth’s orbit and is now headed for the Sun. Astronomers hope the comet named ISON, discovered just last year, will put on a good show as it heats up. But so far, it has not been as bright as originally predicted.

ISON is expected to be nearest to the sun on Thanksgiving Day. It is unknown how the comet will react to the sun's high temperatures.
Credit Mike Hankey of Auberry, CA

“There is still a possibility that it could turn into a truly spectacular comet, but very unlikely as spectacular as originally hoped for. You never know—comets, they say, are like cats. They have tails and they do just exactly what they want to do,” NASA Ambassador Patrick Wiggins said.

Wiggins explained that though the two kilometer in diameter comet made of ice and rock is traveling toward the sun on the path scientists predicted, ISON remains hardly visible in the sky.

As the comet nears the sun, it will heat up to approximately 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, causing ice and dust on its surface to vaporize and produce the familiar comet tail.

NASA lists three possible outcomes of the comet’s close encounter with the sun: One, ISON breaks up before it reaches the star. Two, the comet dies a fiery death from the high heat or massive gravity of the sun. Or three, ISON survives, producing vapor and a spectacular tail visible to the naked eye from earth.

Wiggins and other astronomers are hoping for outcome number 3.

“With some luck, maybe we’ll actually have a nice comet in the next week or so. But, you don’t hear me holding my breath…but if you could see me, you’d see that my fingers are crossed,” Wiggins said.

ISON is visible to the east before sunrise and is set to reach the sun on Thanksgiving Day.