ISON: What’s next?

TORONTO – ISON is a survivor.

Comet ISON seems to have been resurrected after many astronomers and scientists around the world thought it had been torn apart by the sun.

What remains is unknown, however.


Heading into the sun, ISON had a nucleus, or a core, that was about two kilometres in diameter. The tails — one of charged particles called ions, and another of dust and gas — stretched for about 16 million kilometres across space. For comparison, our sun has a radius of 695,000 km. Earth has a radius of just 6,371 km.

But what is left over seems to pale in comparison.

Comet ISON as it heads toward the sun and then after as part of it re-emerges. (NASA/SOHO)
Comet ISON as it heads toward the sun and then after as part of it re-emerges. (NASA/SOHO). NASA/SOHO

According to Karl Battams, a comet scientist for the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) out of Washington, DC, it is unknown as to whether or not ISON has a nucleus.

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The theory, Battams said in his Comet ISON Observing Campaign (CIOC) blog, is that ISON lost some “reasonably sized chunks” as it neared the sun. As the comet passed through the sun’s corona, or the region around the sun that stretches for millions of kilometres outward and where temperatures are in the million degrees, it began to vaporize, losing its tail.

VIDEO: Astronomers fascinated by Comet ISON

What has emerged may be a small nucleus, the scientist surmises, and the tail is indeed growing back.

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Though ISON continues to brighten, it’s unknown if it will continue to do so. And if it does, scientists are still unsure as to whether or not we’ll be able to see anything in the night (early morning) sky.

A similar tale

In December 2011, Comet Lovejoy lived out a similar story.

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The comet (the official name is C/2011 W3) passed about 186,200 km from the sun’s surface. It seemed ludicrous to think that it would survive the searing heat and intense gravity.

But it did.

Astronomers were stunned to discover that it had re-emerged. But just like ISON, it was a fraction of its former self.

It later regrew its tail and became a stunning comet.

Comet Lovejoy (C/2011 W3) as viewed from the International Space Station after the comet had rounded the sun. (NASA). NASA

Whether or not this is the fate of ISON is still unknown.

Either way the comet is sure to keep astronomers and scientists busy in the coming days.

But if it does gain back some of its strength, you can find it in the early morning sky in the coming days.

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READ MORE: Comet ISON nearing the sun, may break apart

It will take a few days for ISON to emerge from the sun’s glare, and when it does, it will be very low on the horizon.

The location of Comet ISON on the morning of Dec. 5 from 43 degrees latitude. (Stellarium). Stellarium

Depending on how well ISON survives, you may need a telescope or a pair of binoculars to spot it.

However, ISON continues to be an unusual comet, so who knows? Perhaps it will give us the show so many had hoped it would.

Even if it doesn’t, though, scientists are revelling at the comet that is helping them learn more about these icy interlopers of our solar system.

One last thing: ISON poses no danger to Earth. So you can rest tight and just enjoy the sight — if there even is one.


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