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'Brighter than a full moon': The biggest star of 2013... could be a comet
Thursday, 27 December 2012



At the moment it is a faint object, visible only in sophisticated telescopes as a point of light moving slowly against the background stars. It doesn't seem much a frozen chunk of rock and ice one of many moving in the depths of space. But this one is being tracked with eager anticipation by astronomers from around the world, and in a year everyone could know its name.

Comet Ison could draw millions out into the dark to witness what could be the brightest comet seen in many generations brighter even than the full Moon.

It was found as a blur on an electronic image of the night sky taken through a telescope at the Kislovodsk Observatory in Russia as part of a project to survey the sky looking for comets and asteroids chunks of rock and ice that litter space. Astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok were expecting to use the International Scientific Optical Network's (Ison) 40cm telescope on the night of 20 September but clouds halted their plans.

It was a frustrating night but about half an hour prior to the beginning of morning twilight, they noticed the sky was clearing and got the telescope and camera up and running to obtain some survey images in the constellations of Gemini and Cancer.

When the images were obtained Nevski loaded them into a computer program designed to detect asteroids and comets moving between images. He noticed a rather bright object with unusually slow movement, which he thought could only mean it was situated way beyond the orbit of Jupiter. But he couldn't tell if the object was a comet, so Novichonok booked time on a larger telescope to take another look. Less than a day later the new images revealed that Nevski and Novichonok had discovered a comet, which was named Comet Ison. A database search showed it has been seen in images taken by other telescopes earlier that year and in late 2011. These observations allowed its orbit to be calculated, and when astronomers did that they let out a collective "wow."

Comet Ison has taken millions of years to reach us travelling from the so-called Oort cloud a reservoir of trillions and trillions of chunks of rock and ice, leftovers from the birth of the planets. It reaches out more than a light-year a quarter of the way to the nearest star. In the Oort cloud the Sun is but a distant point of light whose feeble gravity is just enough to hold onto the cloud. Every once in a while a tiny tug of gravity, perhaps from a nearby star or wandering object, disturbs the cloud sending some of its comets out into interstellar space to be lost forever and a few are scattered sunward. Comet Ison is making its first, and perhaps only visit to us. Its life has been cold, frozen hard and unchanging, but it is moving closer to the Sun, and getting warmer.

 


  

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