It has been billed as the “comet of the century,” but the snowy dirtball known as Comet ISON now racing toward Earth may turn out to be just a flash in the pan.
Though many skygazers have been hoping for a dazzling light show peaking in November and December, Colombian astronomer Ignacio Ferrin, from the Group of Computational Physics and Astrophysics, FACom, says Comet ISON appears to be starting to dissolve.
Ferrin has been using “secular light curves” to help document the brightness history of comets, and after comparing ISON’s light curves with eight other comets that broke apart, he now thinks ISON will soon “fizzle” out.
“The light curve of the comet exhibited a slowdown event characterized by a constant brightness with no indication of a brightness increase tendency,” he said.
Ferrin added the slowdown started Jan. 13 and it continued until the last observations made in September.
“For nine months or more than 270 days, the brightness of ISON has remained constant, a behavior without any example in cometary astronomy and that is a troubling sign for the survival of the comet.”
Celestial forecasts have predicted the comet could shine as bright as the full moon, being one of the brightest comments in recent years.
Some experts have estimated the core of the object to be between 0.12 miles and 1.2 miles across, based on amount of dust it sheds, though others believe the nucleus is roughly 3 miles in diameter.
Comet ISON, whose official name is Comet C/2012 S1, was discovered in 2012 by two Russian amateur astronomers, Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok, using a telescope for the International Scientific Optical Network, thus providing the name ISON.
Astronomy experts call it a “sungrazer,” meaning it will pass close to the sun when it gets to the heart of our solar system next month.
“The most exciting aspect of this new comet concerns its preliminary orbit, which bears a striking resemblance to that of the ‘Great Comet of 1680,’” wrote Space.com skywatching columnist Joe Rao in September 2012.
“That comet put on a dazzling show; it was glimpsed in daylight and later, as it moved away from the sun, it threw off a brilliantly long tail that stretched up from the western twilight sky after sunset like a narrow searchlight beam for some 70 degrees of arc.”
Skywatchers with the NASA-organized Comet ISON Observation Campaign, or CIOC, have said: “Provided ISON survives its solar close shave – and there’s certainly no guarantee that it will – the comet may then be visible to the naked eye sometime in early December, in the western sky just after sunset. Observers in the Northern Hemisphere will have a much better view of ISON than folks in the South.”
The European Space Agency, ESA, says the best viewing time will be in late November during its closest approach to the sun and early December until reaching its closest point of 40 million miles from Earth on Dec. 26.
On Monday of this week, astrophotographer and astronomy educator Adam Block at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter in Tucson, Ariz.. photographed Comet ISON streaking through space in stunning fashion.
“I am certain more images of this will be coming out shortly as it increases in brightness during its dive toward the sun,” Block told NBC’s Alan Boyle.
“Here is hoping it survives that rendezvous and emerges as something spectacular on the other side! Although its future is questionable … being prepared is always a sure thing to take advantage of quickly changing conditions.”
The possibility of a bright display from Comet ISON will likely spark the interest of Bible believers looking forward to the Second Coming of Jesus.
In the New Testament, Jesus predicted celestial signs concerning the end of this current age and His return to Earth to govern the kingdom of God.
- “And the stars of heaven shall fall, and the powers that are in heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.” (Mark 13:25-26)
- “And great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilences; and fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven.” (Luke 21:11)