Comet ISON fades out, but still holds hope for scientists

Dec 2, 2013

Comet ISON on November 16, 2013
Credit Waldemar Skorupa (Kahler Asten, Germany), via

This week, the Kalamazoo Astronomical Society was forced to cancel its watch party for Comet ISON. After the comet’s trip around the sun, it’s a lot less bright and barely visible.

Kalamazoo Astronomical Society President Richard Bell says many astronomers had hopes that this comet would be one of the brightest they’ve seen in years.

“It’s going to come very close to the sun about 724,000 miles. It’s what we call a ‘sun-grazer,’" says Bell. "So that has the potential of making the comet very bright.”

A sun-grazing comet is any comet that comes within 850,000 miles of the sun. Bell says Comet ISON was discovered just last year.

“It wasn’t known until September 2012 when it was discovered by a couple amateur astronomers using a telescope in Russia which was part of the International Scientific Optical Network, or ISON, hence the name of the observatory. And just shortly after it was discovered, they calculated its orbit, realized it was going to come very close to the sun. And of course that’s where people got very excited. Then there were predictions it would be brighter than the full moon.”

Though sun-grazing comets can get very bright, they’re so close to the sun that it makes them hard to see. Mike Sinclair of the Kalamazoo Astronomical Society says sun grazers can also be destroyed by the sun if they come too close.

“It’s been observed with SOHO satellites and a handful of other satellites that there have been very close approaches with comets that then they end up being torn apart by the gravitational tides or they get torn apart by the solar wind," says Sinclair. "And there’s a possibility that could happen.”

At first, NASA scientists thought Comet ISON had been destroyed. But later on Thanksgiving night, a small ghost-like streak was seen coming from the sun. Now, the dusty debris cloud has almost fizzled out, but it’s still there. A time-elapsed movie on NASA’s website captured the comet’s path.

Though Comet ISON was a disappointment for star gazers like Mike Sinclair and Richard Bell of the astronomical society, there’s still something positive we can take away from it. Comets are pieces leftover from when our solar system formed about four and a half billion years ago. NASA says the way a comet fades and brightens as it gets closer to the sun tells scientists about what the comet is made of. And that makes Comet ISON pretty important—even if it’s not very bright.