New hope for ‘Comet of the Century’ ISON?

Comet ISON, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in April 2013Since Comet ISON dipped behind the Sun earlier this summer, the news we've been hearing about this celestial traveler hasn't been very good. In fact, it was just two weeks ago that one scientist said ISON had completely fizzled out. However, word from NASA's Comet ISON Observing Campaign (CIOC) is that astronomers have spotted the comet again, and there's hope for the 'Comet of the Century' yet.

Astronomers have been tracking Comet ISON (more formally known as 'C/2012 S1 ISON') since it was first spotted back in September of last year, while it was still out beyond the orbit of Jupiter. Even then, based on its size and brightness, there were signs that it would be exceptionally bright. However, there was a touch of caution added, since the plot of ISON's orbit showed that it would be a 'sungrazing comet' — one that gets extremely close to the Sun at its closest approach — and we've already had plenty of evidence that the Sun is very unforgiving for comets that stray too close.

If ISON does survive, though, as it emerges from its close approach to the Sun, it should be bright enough to be seen in the daytime and outshine the Moon at night!

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ISON has been lost from our view for a couple of months now. It's still out beyond the orbit of Mars, but based on our relative positions in the solar system, the Sun has been blocking our view of it. While it was gone, nerve-fraying news came out that the comet had fizzled out completely, and thus ISON, although it showed so much promise to start, was going to be a dud.

Some good news has surfaced, however, which may counter the doom and gloom cast over ISON.

According to Karl Battams, an astrophysicist who operates the NASA-funded 'Sungrazing Comets Project,' astronomers have caught sight of ISON a bit early, even though they weren't expecting to see it for another couple of weeks.

This image of Comet ISON (in the rectangle) gives hope that it may live up to being the 'Comet of the Century' …Even better than that, rather than fizzling out, the comet has gotten brighter!

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This is awesome news!

I've had high hopes for ISON ever since I first reported on it last year. I'll acknowledge that there's still a chance it may fizzle out, or get ripped apart as it passes around the Sun, but for now, I'm going to keep my hopes intact that it continues to survive and ends up giving us a spectacular show later this year.

If you have a telescope and you're interested in checking out ISON for yourself, right now it should be located somewhere between the constellations of Gemini and Cancer, thus visible shortly before dawn, and it's around magnitude 14.3 (still fairly faint).

(Images courtesy: NASA/Hubble, Bruce Gary)

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