If you happen to look up in the sky this November and see an object brighter than the moon, have no fear: It’s only the “comet of the century.”
That’s the impressive moniker being given to Comet ISON because it may become brighter than the moon for observers in the Northern Hemisphere on Nov. 28, when it passes about 800,000 miles from the sun, according to Karl Battams of the NASA-supported Sungrazer Comet Project.
Hubble snapped photos of Comet ISON on April 10, when it was some 386 million miles from the sun. It is still too far away to be seen with the naked eye, but that will change for earthlings beginning in October, according to astronomer Dr. David Whitehouse, who wrote about ISON for The Independent in December:
By late November it (ISON) will be visible to the unaided eye just after dark in the same direction as the setting sun. Its tail could stretch like a searchlight into the sky above the horizon. Then it will swing rapidly around the sun, passing within two million miles of it, far closer than any planet ever does, to emerge visible in the evening sky heading northward towards the pole star. It could be an "unaided eye" object for months.
ISOP is being compared to the Great Comet of 1680, which was purportedly visible even in the daytime and was used by Sir Isaac Newton to verify Kepler’s laws of motion.
For the time being, though, we’ll have to be content with the amazing images captured by Hubble. And before we get our hopes up too high for the cosmic show of the century, it’s also worth noting that Battams is being cautious about the hype around ISON.
Battams said there are plenty of examples of comets that “got the astronomy community seriously worked up, only to fizzle.”
Battams said both a super comet and disappointing one are possible, “as is anything in between.”
So we will have to wait and see – or not see, as the case may be.
ISON got its name from the International Scientific Optic Network, which Wikipedia describes as “a group of observatories in 10 countries who have organized to detect, monitor and track objects in space.”