The day of reckoning has finally arrived for Comet ISON, as it slingshots around the sun and we find out whether it survives roasting.
Comet ISON today reaches its closest point of approach to the sun, its “perihelion,” at around 1:44 pm EST (18:44 GMT) today. The frozen snowball from the solar system’s outer reaches will pass within 724,000 miles (1.65 million kilometers) of the sun’s fiery surface.
While the comet is now lost in the glare of the sun, making it dangerous to watch as it makes its hairpin turn around the sun in the sky, the cosmic spectacle can be safely enjoyed online courtesy of high-resolution, near-live views from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.
From 1 pm to 3:30 pm EST Thursday join solar scientists on a Google+ Hangout and follow the journey of Comet ISON as it whips around the sun.
The comet has grown more than ten times brighter in recent days. As it plunges through the sun’s outer atmosphere, the comet’s icy nucleus will begin to experience intense gravitational forces and temperatures that reach as high as 5000 degrees Fahrenheit (2760 degrees Celsius). Check out this amazing animation from NASA’s SOHO spacecraft showing the comet only 2 hours before its closest approach to the sun.
No one knows if the comet will remain intact under these hellish conditions—but sky watchers hope that it emerges as a bright comet in the morning sky in early December.
Stay tuned for more updates post-perihelion.
Update: Astronomers continued looking for Comet ISON late in the day on Thursday but NASA released a statement around 6:00 pm EST suggesting that the comet has likely fizzled, burning up on its close approach to the sun.
Update # 2: Back from the Brink? As of 9 pm EST latest images beamed back from NASA’s SOHO satellite (see below) clearly shows that Comet ISON – or remnants of- have against all odds survived its trip around the sun. Could it be that all that remains is a fragment of the nucleus or is it a headless comet now? Talk about a zombie comet! Next 24 hours will tell the story.
Update # 3: As of 1 pm EST, November 29th, Comet ISON appears to have returned from the dead and is brightening again according to new images beamed back from NASA’s SOHO satellite. Scientists believe the comet’s nucleus began to fall apart as it skirted the sun but enough of it has apparently survived so that it’s emitting dust and gas that is forming a tail once again as its pulling away from the sun.
Expert astrophotographer Babak Tafreshi has edited an HD video from NASA satellite imagery that shows ISON’s hair-raising solar encounter. He predicts there still may be a sky show of some sort still possible.
“It seems the comet could become a naked eye object with several degrees of scattered tail by Dec 2nd or 3rd,” Tafreshi said in an email.
“It’s not the comet of the century for sure, and fainter than the Lovejoy sungrazer in Dec. 2011, but an interesting imaging target is just a few nights away!”