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By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

11/25/2013 (1 year ago)

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

One of nature's greatest spectacles is just days away -- if the little comet survives.

It's showtime for Comet ISON. After sixteen months of hype, the potential "comet of the century" has reached perihelion. But what happens next remains a mystery as Comet ISON's trial by fire begins.

Comet ISON imaged in the predawn sky.

Comet ISON imaged in the predawn sky.

Highlights

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

11/25/2013 (1 year ago)

Published in Technology

Keywords: Comet ISON, close approach, great comet, viewing, visibility, magnitude, perihelion


LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Comet ISON has been visible for the past week in the pre-dawn sky for those who know where to look. As of this morning however, it has moved too close to the Sun for most people to spot. Within the next few days, it will actually pass behind the Sun from our perspective. What happens next is a matter of luck.

Comet ISON reaches perihelion, that is its closest approach to the Sun, on Thursday, which is the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States. On that day, the comet will skim just three-quarters of a million miles of the seething-hot, boiling plasma-surface of the Sun. The tiny comet, just about 2 km across, will be subjected to extreme tidal forces, heat, and solar radiation that could easily tear it to pieces.

If it does not survive, then the last we will view of it will be on Thursday morning, as special, Sun-directed telescopes film its fiery death-plunge.

However, Comet ISON could just as well survive, and if it does, it will capture world attention. When ISON passes from behind the Sun late Thursday or early Friday for most people, it will be brighter than it has ever been. Within a matter of days, perhaps as late as December 5, it will finally appear distant enough from the Sun and bright enough so that casual observers will look up and wonder, "what's that?"

Comet ISON will blaze brightly in the morning sky now, climbing northward and into the evening sky with each passing night. Eventually, it will pass over the north pole around Christmas before finally cooling and fading out of view by early January.

By spring, it will be visible only to large telescopes, and it will fade from all view, forever, as it is flung into deep space, never to return again.

Astronomers believe Comet ISON is an object from the Oort cloud, a halo of comets surrounding the Solar System about 100,000 AU from the Sun. That's 100,000 times the average distance between the Earth and the Sun. It likely has taken Comet ISON one million years to travel that distance, now to arrive on Thursday.

On its outward journey, the tiny object will be traveling so fast that it will actually escape the Solar System, assuming it survives its close approach to the Sun.

Two weeks ago, ISON suddenly brightened, causing astronomers to speculate that it was already be breaking up. However, close observations with the Hubble Space Telescope suggests that remains intact, still in one piece.

So the houselights have dimmed; it's time to take your seats. Late Thursday, the curtain will rise on one of the rarest and greatest spectacles staged by nature. Enjoy the show!

A birth foretold: click here to learn more!

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