All ISON the Sun

Over the next month, Comet ISON will either provide skywatchers on Earth with astronomical beauty or enormous disappointment.

Thanksgiving weekend finds the visitor from Oort swinging behind the sun at more than 300,000 miles per hour (or “haulin’ ass” in scientific terms), coming only 730,000 miles from our hot ball of gas at its closest approach. To put that in perspective, Mercury orbits an average of nearly 36 million miles from the sun. Needless to say, not the friendliest place for a ball of ice and rock to be, eh?

To make things even more exciting, the sun has unleashed a coronal mass ejection (seen in the lower animation). Shouldn’t affect the comet much, though. the sun’s immense energy will put enough strain on it as it is.

Whether or not it will survive the close shave is unknown, but astronomers are watching closely (as you can see, it’s entered into view of NASA’s solar observing telescopes!). If ISON does make it through intact (perhaps lightly broiled?) December promises some superb comet watching.

For updates: Check out a live feed of its position and speed at CometISON 2013. I also recommend Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog and here’s a host of links from NBC’s Alan Boyle.

I know what I’m doing this weekend 🙂

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