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Hang on for a comet sighting for the ages: Meet Comet Ison

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Next year is set to be a doozy for stargazers and those who love nothing more than the chance to wish upon a falling star, but no worries you’ll miss what scientists believe will be the most spectacular comet sighting in generations.

Though first spotted in 2011 making its way toward the Sun from the Oort cloud, Russian astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok had the honor of naming what will likely be the “star” of next year’s space events (pun completely intended) after an almost fruitless night scanning the skies using the International Scientific Optical Network’s (Ison) 40cm telescope.

Though it’s hard to wrap one’s head around, this event has been millions of years in the making, and unlike many comets, this will likely be Ison’s one and only appearance in our skies. The long journey is only one fascinating aspect of this comet, though.

Ison’s surface is very dark – darker than asphalt – pockmarked and dusty with ice beneath the surface. It’s a small body, a few tens of miles across, with a tiny pull of gravity. If you stood upon it you could leap 20 miles into space taking over a week to come down again, watching as the comet rotated beneath you. You could walk to the equator, kneel down and gather up handfuls of comet material to make snowballs, throw them in a direction against the comet’s spin and watch them hang motionless in front of you. But it will not remain quiet on Comet Ison for the Sun’s heat will bring it to life.

If you’re wondering when to mark the calendar, binoculars and small telescopes should make it visible by late summer, but the real show comes in late fall.

By late November it 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. When it is close in its approach to the Sun it could become intensely brilliant but at that stage it would be difficult and dangerous to see without special instrumentation as it would be only a degree from the sun.

Anyone still suffering from disappointment over the unfulfilled Mayan prophecy now has a whole new conspiracy to focus on, which should raise a panic well into 2014, but for everyone else, just look forward to the show of a lifetime.

Full story at The Independent.

Ridiculously cool space stuff.

Photo credit: Fotolia

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