November 14, 2013 5:44 pm
Updated: November 17, 2013 12:30 am

Comet ISON suddenly brightens

Comet ISON photographed east of Toronto on Nov. 14.

Malcolm Park

TORONTO – Comet ISON – which some had hoped would be the “Comet of the Century” – suddenly brightened on Thursday.

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Comet ISON is a sun-grazing comet, meaning its orbit takes it very close to the sun. ISON will pass a mere 1.16 million km from the sun’s surface on Nov. 28. That might not seem like it’s pretty close but keep in mind that Earth is about 150 million km from the sun. Mercury, the closest planet to the sun, is  about 55 million km.

There had been hope that ISON would be visible to the naked eye by now. Instead, the comet’s brightness hasn’t lived up to expectations.

Until Thursday.

The comet experienced a sudden surge in brightness, by about two magnitudes. Apparent magnitude is used to determine how bright a celestial object is. The lower the number, the brighter an object appears. ISON brightened from roughly magnitude eight to about six.

Some amateur astronomers are reporting on that the comet is easily visible through binoculars. In dark-sky sites, you may be able to see it with averted vision, meaning you don’t focus on what you’re looking at, but rather slightly to the left or right.

Where to find Comet ISON at 6 a.m. (Stellarium)

Courtesy Stellarium

As ISON nears the sun, more of it will be blown away from the solar wind. There is the possibility that a new area of ice has opened up and is vaporizing the trapped gases and ice within.

Astronomers anticipate that ISON will continue to brighten as it nears the sun. If it survives its trip around the sun, ISON will make its closest approach to Earth on Dec. 26.

Comet ISON was discovered by Russian astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok on Sept. 21, 2012 (its official name is C/2012 S1; ISON stands for the International Scientific Optical Network, named for a group of observatories which track objects in space).

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