Recently discovered comet ISON could be a treat for sky watchers in 2013. It is predicted that ISON will be much brighter than previous comets which have been visible from Earth, such as Halle-Bopp. Why ISON? The comet was named after the International Scientific Optical Network as it was discovered by two amateur astronomers, Artyom Novichonok and Vitali Nevski.
Observed for the first time in September 2012 astronomers around the world have been excitedly tracking its course. Time
within days of any new comet being discovered astronomers can tell you exactly what its path through the solar system will look like.
What is already known is that ISON will shine brightly in the Northern Hemisphere skies visible at times during the day as well as night. It is already being predicted that it will be the comet of the century but people may have heard that one before.
In January 1974 Time
was one of many publications that reported Comet Kohoutek had failed to live up to expectations. Billed as "the comet of the century" it was reported to be more like "flop of the century" Halle-Bopp the comet which visited our skies in 1995 was a different matter. Visibile for some time it became a nightly sight before it went on its way.
Sadly Halle-Bopp inspired 39 members of a cult group, Heaven's Gate,
to commit mass suicide believing that a space craft was following in its wake and would take their souls on board.
So what is a comet?
Comets travel very fast, loop around the Sun, and have long tails. A comet is a chunk of material left over from the formation of the solar system. About 4.6 billion years ago, our solar system formed from a vast cloud of gas and dust. Slowly pulled in by its own gravity, this swirling, roiling mass collapsed, and if you could have watched, it might have looked like an explosion in slow motion and reverse. Most of the material in the cloud collected at the center and formed the Sun. Other big clumps of gas and dust became the planets, including Earth. Some of the material that didn't get caught up in the Sun or planets as they were forming gathered into smaller chunks, sometimes just a few kilometers across. Many of these chunks are what we call comets.
ISON has already been caught on camera which means that it is a very large comet. As it travels through space it will come closer to Earth. In late 2013 it will be at its closest and therefore brightest.
Comets sometimes return, albeit many years later, but ISON's visit to our inner solar system is expected to be unique. Its trajectory could see it ultimately plunge to a fiery death in the Sun. If it does not and survives its next visit to Earth could be in thousands or millions
of years time.