Saturday, December 7, 2013

Subaru Telescope Captures the Fine Details of Comet Lovejoy’s Tail

Comet ISON may be no more than just a cloud of icy debris these days but there’s another comet that’s showing off in the morning sky: C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy), which was discovered in September and is steadily nearing its Christmas Day perihelion. In the early hours of Dec. 3, astronomers using the 8.2-meter Subaru Telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii captured this amazing image of Lovejoy, revealing the intricate flows of ion streamers in its tail.

Courtsey - Universetoday

Comet lovejoy Path in December 2013

Comet Lovejoy during the Month of December 2013
Map Courtesy - AstroBob


On the morning of Dec. 6th, leading researchers from the Comet ISON Observing Campaign (CIOC) held an informal workshop at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. One of the key questions they discussed was, Did Comet ISON survive? It might seem surprising that anyone is still asking. After all, the "comet" that emerged from the sun's atmosphere on Thanksgiving day appeared to be little more than a disintegrating cloud of dust. This movie from the STEREO-A spacecraft (processed by Alan Watson) shows the V-shaped cloud fading into invisibility on Dec. 1st:

The answer hinges on the contents of that cloud. Is it nothing more than a cloud of dust--or could there be some some fragments of the disintegrated nucleus still intact and potentially active?

A key result announced at the workshop comes from SOHO, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. According to the spacecraft's SWAN instrument, the comet stopped producing so-called Lyman alpha photons soon after its closest approach to the sun. Karl Battams of the CIOC explains what this means: "Without getting technical, Lyman-Alpha is a consequence of sunlight interacting with hydrogen, and if we are not seeing that interaction then it means that the levels of hydrogen (and hence ice) are extremely low. This is indicative of a completely burned out nucleus, or no nucleus at all."

"The evidence appears strong that at some point approaching perihelion - whether days or hours - Comet ISON likely began to completely fall apart," he continues. "What remains of ISON now is going to be either just a cloud of dust, or perhaps a few very depleted chunks of nucleus. Either way, it's not going to flare up at this point and we should assume the comet's show is over."

"However, we do need to verify this," says Battams. "Hopefully the Hubble team can come to the rescue! In mid-December, Hubble will be pointed in the direction of where ISON should be and they'll try and image something. If no fragments are surviving, or they are tiny, then Hubble will not be able to find anything, but that negative detection will tell us something: namely that ISON is indeed gone for good."
Courtesy -

Monday, December 2, 2013

Obituary ISON

Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON)
Born 4.5 Billion BC, Fragmented Nov 28, 2013 (age 4.5-billion yrs old)

Born in a dusty and turbulent environment, comet ISON spent its early years being jostled and struck by siblings both large and small. Surviving a particularly violent first few million years, ISON retreated to the Oort Cloud, where it maintained a largely reclusive existence for nearly four billion years. But around 3-million B.C., a chance encounter with a passing star coerced ISON into undertaking a pioneering career as a Sungrazer. On September 21, 2012, ISON made itself known to us, and allowed us to catalog the most extraordinary part of its spectacular vocational calling.

Never one to follow convention, ISON lived a dynamic and unpredictable life, alternating between periods of quiet reflection and violent outburst. However, its toughened exterior belied a complex and delicate inner working that only now we are just beginning to understand. In late 2013, Comet ISON demonstrated not only its true beauty but a surprising turn of speed as it reached its career defining moment in the inner solar system. Tragically, on November 28, 2013, ISON's tenacious ambition outweighed its ability, and our shining green candle in the solar wind began to burn out.

Survived by approximately several trillion siblings, Comet ISON leaves behind an unprecedented legacy for astronomers, and the eternal gratitude of an enthralled global audience. In ISON's memory, donations are encouraged to your local astronomy club, observatory or charity that supports STEM and science outreach programs for children.

Courtesy - Karl Battams

Saturday, November 30, 2013


Cancel the funeral. Comet ISON is back from the dead. On Nov. 28th, Comet ISON flew through the sun's atmosphere and appeared to disintegrate before the cameras of several NASA and ESA spacecraft. This prompted reports of the comet's demise. Hours later the comet revived, sprouted two tails and rapidly brightened. It is now receding from the sun with a fair chance of becoming a photographic object in the morning sky as early as Dec. 2nd or 3rd. A new coronagraph movie from SOHO documents the flyby (updated Nov. 30 @ 00:09 UT):

Before the flyby, experts had made many predictions about what might happen to the comet, ranging from utter disintegration to glorious survival. No one predicted both.

Karl Battams of NASA's Comet ISON Observing Campaign says, "[colleague] Matthew Knight and I are ripping our hair out right now as we know that so many people in the public, the media and in science teams want to know what's happened. We'd love to know that too! Right now, here's our working hypothesis:

"As comet ISON plunged towards to the Sun, it began to fall apart, losing not giant fragments but at least a lot of reasonably sized chunks. There's evidence of very large dust in the long thin tail we saw in the [SOHO coronagraph] images. Then, as ISON plunged through the corona, it continued to fall apart and vaporize, losing its coma and tail completely just like sungrazing Comet Lovejoy did in 2011. What emerged from the Sun was a small but perhaps somewhat coherent nucleus that has resumed emitting dust and gas for at least the time being."

Battams emphasizes that it is too soon to tell how big the remnant nucleus is or how bright the resurgent comet will ultimately become. "We have a whole new set of unknowns, and this ridiculous, crazy, dynamic and unpredictable object continues to amaze, astound and confuse us to no end. We ask that you please be patient with us for a couple of days as we analyze the data and try to work out what is happening."

Courtesy -

Friday, November 29, 2013

Few updates on showing fate of ISON

Update, 8:35 p.m. EST: Uncertainty about Comet ISON’s fate likely will persist for some time. Karl Battams just tweeted that after 2,000 sungrazing comet observations, he has never seen brightening in the same way that ISON (or its remains) appear to be doing right now. We’ll keep watching. Real-time images are available on this website.

Update, 6:30 p.m. EST: An excellent blog post from Phil Plait (who writes the Bad Astronomy blog on Slate) summarizes his take of the comet’s fate; debris (most likely, he says) continues to show up in images. An except: “It held together a long time, got very bright last night, faded this morning, then apparently fell apart. This isn’t surprising; we see comets disintegrate often enough as they round the Sun. ISON’s nucleus was only a couple of kilometers across at best, so it would have suffered under the Sun’s heat more than a bigger comet would have. Still, there’s more observing to do, and of course much data over which to pore.”

Update, 4:40 p.m. EST: On Twitter, the European Space Agency (quoting SOHO scientist Bernhard Fleck) said the comet is gone. Separately, the Naval Research Laboratory’s Karl Battams posted that he thinks recent observations show debris from ISON, but not a nucleus. Astronomers are still monitoring, however.

Update, 3:56 p.m. EST: Something has emerged from perihelion, but the experts are divided as to whether it’s leftovers of ISON’s tail, or the comet itself. 

Comet ISON Fizzles as it Rounds the Sun

Comet ISON went around the sun on Nov. 28, 2013. Several solar observatories watched the comet throughout this closest approach to the sun, known as perihelion. While the fate of the comet is not yet established, it is likely that it did not survive the trip. The comet grew faint while within both the view of NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory, and the joint European Space Agency and NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. The comet was not visible at all in NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory.

"We didn't see Comet ISON in SDO," said Dean Pesnell, project scientist for SDO.

This image from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory shows the sun, but no Comet ISON was seen. A white plus sign shows where the Comet should have appeared. It is likely that the comet did not survive the trip.
Image Credit: NASA/SDO

"So we think it must have broken up and evaporated before it reached perihelion."

While this means that Comet ISON will not be visible in the night sky in December, the wealth of observations gathered of the comet over the last year will provide great research opportunities for some time. One important question will simply be to figure out why it is no longer visible.

Courtesy - Karen C. Fox
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. NASA/SDO/ESA/SOHO/GSFC