29 November 2013

Comet ISON Apparently Destroyed During Journey Around Sun

Image Caption: This image from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory shows the sun, but no Comet ISON was seen. A white plus sign shows where the Comet should have appeared. It is likely that the comet did not survive the trip. Credit: NASA / SDO
Comet ISON, hailed as the “comet of the century” by space enthusiasts and armchair astronomers, was apparently done in during its final approach to the sun, according to media reports published Thursday.

ISON, which spent over a million years traveling from the farthest reaches of the solar system, made its closest approach to the sun at approximately 1:40pm EST today, according to the Wall Street Journal. Later on in the afternoon, scientists monitoring the comet’s progress declared that it was unlikely that the comet had survived the encounter.

“At this point, I do suspect that the comet has broken up and died,” Karl Battams, a comet scientist with the Naval Research Laboratory, said during a NASA and Google+ chat from Arizona’s Kitt Peak Observatory, according to USA Today. “Let’s at least give it a couple of more hours before we start writing the obituary.”

“In the case of Comet ISON, it appears to have disappeared and broken up into small enough chunks that over the course of hours, or a day or so, that those chunks have all evaporated,” added Dean Pesnell, project scientist with NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, in a comment published by CBS News. “And once it gets small enough and sees the sun’s magnetic field  (the fragments) don’t stay together and we don’t get to see them.”

Earlier this month, NASA scientists explained that at ISON’s closest approach to the sun, the comet’s equilibrium temperature would reach upwards of 5000 degrees Fahrenheit hot enough to cause much of the rock and dust on the comet’s surface to vaporize. Furthermore, if it managed to survive that, it would face a second obstacle. It would have been near enough to the sun that the star’s gravity could have pulled it apart. In short, ISON’s odds of survival were never good.

“Studying an image from a coronagraph aboard the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory spacecraft, Battams said he saw no sign of ISON emerging from behind the instrument’s occulting disk, used to block out the glare of the sun, ‘and that, I think, could be the nail in the coffin,’” said William Harwell of CBS. “Asked whether the comet might still make an appearance in Earth’s sky as the presumed remnants move back out into deep space over the next few weeks, Pesnell said ‘probably not,’ adding that ‘if we don’t see it coming out from behind  the chances of it being bright enough as it moves away from the sun are fairly small.’”

“It was an inglorious and inconclusive end for a ‘dirty snowball’ that scientists say was a fossil relic of the solar system’s formation 4.5 million years ago,” added NBC News Science Editor Alan Boyle. “ISON spent much of that time on the solar system’s farthest reaches, in a haze of comets known as the Oort Cloud. A passing star probably perturbed the comet’s orbit enough to send it on a 5.5 million-year journey toward the sun.”

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