Sungrazers Galore

Before 1979, there were less than a dozen known sungrazing comets. As of December 2012, we know of 2,500. Why did this number increase? With solar observatories like SOHO, STEREO, and SDO, we have not only better means of viewing the sun, but also the comets that approach it. SOHO allows us to see smaller, fainter comets closer to the sun than we have ever been able to see before. Even though many of these comets do not survive their journey past the sun, they survive long enough to be observed, and be added to our record of sungrazing comets.

Hubble's Last Look at Comet ISON Before Perihelion

As of mid-November, ISON is officially upon us. Using Hubble, we’ve taken our closest look yet at the innermost region of the comet, where geysers of sublimating ice are fueling a spectacular tail. Made from observations on November 2nd, the image combines pictures of ISON taken through blue and red filters. As we expect, the round coma around ISON’s nucleus is blue and the tail has a redder hue. Ice and gas in the coma reflect blue light from the Sun, while dust grains in the tail reflect more red light than blue light. This is the most color separation we’ve seen so far in ISON — that’s because the comet, nearer than ever to the Sun, is brighter and more structured than ever before. We’ve certainly come a long way since Hubble started observing Comet ISON, way back in April. Of course, our eight-month retrospective pales in comparison with ISON’s own journey, which started some 10,000 years ago in the Oort cloud. ISON will come closest to the Sun on November 28, a point in its orbit known as perihelion. What’s remarkable here is that the entire ISON, this awesome, shimmery space tadpole, is being produced from a dusty ball of ice estimated to be a few kilometers in diameter. Compared to ISON’s full extent, Hubble’s latest image is tiny. It only shows the very base of the tail. Yet even in this closest closeup we’ve ever had, a single pixel spans 24 km across the comet. Now that Comet ISON is close, amateur astromers rule the day. But Hubble observations, including this latest image, are still providing key insights into the science and spectacle of a comet we hope will continue to impress. Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) ——– More details on Comet ISON: Comet ISON began its trip from the Oort cloud region of our solar system and is now travelling toward the sun. The comet will reach its closest approach to the sun on Thanksgiving Day — 28 Nov 2013 — skimming just 730,000 miles above the sun’s surface. If it comes around the sun without breaking up, the comet will be visible in the Northern Hemisphere with the naked eye, and from what we see now, ISON is predicted to be a particularly bright and beautiful comet. Catalogued as C/2012 S1, Comet ISON was first spotted 585 million miles away in September 2012. This is ISON’s very first trip around the sun, which means it is still made of pristine matter from the earliest days of the solar system’s formation, its top layers never having been lost by a trip near the sun. Comet ISON is, like all comets, a dirty snowball made up of dust and frozen gases like water, ammonia, methane and carbon dioxide — some of the fundamental building blocks that scientists believe led to the formation of the planets 4.5 billion years ago. NASA has been using a vast fleet of spacecraft, instruments, and space- and Earth-based telescope, in order to learn more about this time capsule from when the solar system first formed. The journey along the way for such a sun-grazing comet can be dangerous. A giant ejection of solar material from the sun could rip its tail off. Before it reaches Mars — at some 230 million miles away from the sun — the radiation of the sun begins to boil its water, the first step toward breaking apart. And, if it survives all this, the intense radiation and pressure as it flies near the surface of the sun could destroy it altogether. This collection of images show ISON throughout that journey, as scientists watched to see whether the comet would break up or remain intact. The comet reaches its closest approach to the sun on Thanksgiving Day — Nov. 28, 2013 — skimming just 730,000 miles above the sun’s surface. If it comes around the sun without breaking up, the comet will be visible in the Northern Hemisphere with the naked eye, and from what we see now, ISON is predicted to be a particularly bright and beautiful comet. ISON stands for International Scientific Optical Network, a group of observatories in ten countries who have organized to detect, monitor, and track objects in space. ISON is

Comet ISON Approaching the Sun [hd video]

This movie from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft’s Heliospheric Imager shows Comet ISON, Mercury, Comet Encke and Earth over a five-day period from Nov. 20 to Nov. 25, 2013. The sun sits right of the field of view of this camera. Comet ISON, which will round the sun on Nov. 28, is what’s known as a sungrazing comet, due to its close approach. Foreshortening or the angle at which these images were obtained make Earth appear as if it is closer to the sun than Mercury. If you look closely you will also see a dimmer and smaller comet Encke near comet ISON. A comet’s journey through the solar system is perilous and violent. A giant ejection of solar material from the sun could rip its tail off. Before it reaches Mars — at some 230 million miles away from the sun — the radiation of the sun begins to boil its water, the first step toward breaking apart. And, if it survives all this, the intense radiation and pressure as it flies near the surface of the sun could destroy it altogether. Even if the comet does not survive, tracking its journey will help scientists understand what the comet is made of, how it reacts to its environment, and what this explains about the origins of the solar system. Closer to the sun, watching how the comet and its tail interact with the vast solar atmosphere can teach scientists more about the sun itself. Image Credit: NASA/STEREO NASA image use policy. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center enables NASA’s mission through four scientific endeavors: Earth Science, Heliophysics, Solar System Exploration, and Astrophysics. Goddard plays a leading role in NASA’s accomplishments by contributing compelling scientific knowledge to advance the Agency’s mission. Follow us on Twitter Like us on Facebook Find us on Instagram

First Comet Encounter

Kjell Stakkestad, President and CEO of KinetX Inc., speaks during a symposium commemorating a quarter-century of comet discoveries, Friday, Sept. 10, 2010, in the Knight studio at the Newseum in Washington. The International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3) spacecraft flew past the comet Giacobini-Zinner on Sept. 11, 1985 which established a foundation of discoveries that continue today. Photo Credit: (NASA/Paul E. Alers)

First Comet Encounter

Dr. Anita Cochran, Assistant Director, McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas-Austin, speaks during a symposium commemorating a quarter-century of comet discoveries, Friday, Sept. 10, 2010, in the Knight studio at the Newseum in Washington. The International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3) spacecraft flew past the comet Giacobini-Zinner on Sept. 11, 1985 which established a foundation of discoveries that continue today. Photo Credit: (NASA/Paul E. Alers)

First Comet Encounter

Dr. James L. Green, Director of Planetary Science at NASA, speaks during a symposium commemorating a quarter-century of comet discoveries, Friday, Sept. 10, 2010, in the Knight studio at the Newseum in Washington. The International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3) spacecraft flew past the comet Giacobini-Zinner on Sept. 11, 1985 which established a foundation of discoveries that continue today. Photo Credit: (NASA/Paul E. Alers)