Will Newly Discovered Comet ISON Be The Brightest Ever In History?
How Bright Could Comet ISON Be?
Controversy is no stranger to the world of astronomy, and the latest buzz in the community of stargazers around the world is no different. Projected to be visible to the naked eye in late 2013, comet C/2012 S1--presently referred to as Comet ISON after the Russian’s International Scientific Optical Network used their 16 inch Santel reflector telescope in its discovery--was located just beyond the orbit of Jupiter.
But what exactly is controversial about the fascinating new comet? The arguments from either side of the scientific community concerns the brightness and visibility of this new found object. Some claim it will outshine the moon and perhaps even be clearly visible during daylight hours. Some of their peers however, say it is much too soon to tell and give a 30% chance the comet will live up to its billing. But why?
The Early Sky Was Covered With Comets
History of Comets in the Ancient World
Harbingers of Doom or Bringers of Life?
The night sky was watched closely by ancient man, with comets especially being significant to the superstitions of many early cultures. Comets were often considered portents of bad luck before battles or other important events, or even the cause of death or disease among other catastrophes of the times.
Some scholars even believe Haley’s comet may have influenced the anonymous author of the Gospel of Matthew to use it as the basis for the Star of Bethlehem in 66 A.D. Because of the sudden appearance of the swastika in both Native American and other world cultures, it is suggested a comet--both spiraling and emitting four jets of vapor-may have appeared in the night sky.
Naturally such a scene would inspire awe among these primitive cultures and assure the now infamous design a permanent place in world history.
Comets too are thought to have possibly been the bringers of life to our world. Traveling great distances and often encountering other heavenly objects in their seemingly eternal voyages, who knows what materials of the stars they may finally deliver to a barren world?
One thing is for sure, there is water in abundance on many such objects, and water is essential for life as we know it.
Last Comet To Hit The Earth?
What Are Comets Made Of?
Comets are thought to be ancient leftovers from the very beginnings of our universe. Most are made up of ammonia, water, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, as well as methane, rocks, dust and other space debris.
The sublimation of these frozen volatile substances--changing from a solid state to vapor without becoming liquid-- forms the often spectacular tail streaming from the comet for thousands of miles in its wake.
When a new comet is discovered entering our solar system on its orbit around our sun, old records are checked to see if they’ve been recorded sometime in the past.
Because they are easily noticed in the night sky, comets have been documented for thousands of years by our world's ancient cultures. Only after checking these old records was it finally determined Halley's comet returned roughly every 75 years.
The Chinese were especially adept at this with their notes and observations, being exceeding helpful with identifying returning comets.
It is theorized a comet could have affected the mass extinction of the mega-fauna in the Americas during the time of Clovis man.
Continent wide fires caused by an exploding comet could have destroyed the vast grass plains and eliminated the food source of the great beasts, and those which preyed upon them.
Many species of large animal disappeared forever from the face of the earth after this period of time.
The Oort Cloud
Where did the new comet come from?
ISON is suspected of being a “new” comet, that is, one which is on its first orbit around the sun. If this is indeed true, then it originated in the hypothetical Oort Cloud surrounding our solar system. Approximately one light year from the sun, this orbiting mass consists of literally billions of frozen objects. It is thought to be the leftover material after the planets and moons of our solar system formed.
The earth’s oceans and rivers are theorized to be the remnants of comets impacting our planet during its past. When the earth was young, the skies would have been sprinkled with comets which had still not found other masses to unite with. It also appears possible ISON will have but one encounter with our sun and its array of planets.
Projected Orbit of the Comet ISON
What could happen to ISON between then and now?
Since ISON is thought to be in its maiden voyage around the sun, it may have not been stressed by objects with a strong gravitational pull before. Depending on the makeup of ISON--whether it is a strong mass of solid rocky material or simply a giant, soft, and dirty snowball--this comet could be brilliantly spectacular object in the night sky, or a big disappointment for those looking forward to its arrival.
A soft comet may begin breaking up quickly when exposed to the sun’s pull or even separate into multiple pieces while still a long distance away from our view. ISON has never experienced such stress and it remains to be seen whether it can make it here for us to marvel at.
ISON will pass withing 1.2 million miles of the sun in November 2013. This is similar to the Great Comet of 1680 which was said to be so bright it was visible during daylight hours. Some scientists even suggest they are two seperate pieces of the same comet since their paths are so similar.
Come Along For The Ride
So will ISON be the brightest comet in history?
The jury is still out on whether ISON will live up to its expectations. Its path so close to the sun will place enormous stress on the object and it is possible it will break apart or even explode. But this too could yield a spectacular light show for those of us here on earth.
It is also possible the comet could lose a lot of its material long before it reaches the point of it being visible to the naked eye. Perhaps we'll know something more before long as all eyes will be watching this strange new visitor to our solar system.
Check back for updates on Comet ISON's progress and I'll endeavor to give any new updates as they are gathered. Lets hope for the best seat in the solar system.
As of this day, November 21, ISON is scheduled to make its closest encounter with the sun on Thanksgiving day. The difference in the much anticipated comet's being a spectacular sky show, or merely being another less than flamboyant event depends on how the celestial body survives the encounter with our closest star.
Barely visible to the naked eye at this time, ISON can be seen just before daylight on Wednesday and Thursday morning if the weather permits. Look low along the eastern horizon at a spot near where the sun will rise to find ISON. Stay tuned for further updates on the comet's progress.