Requiem for a Comet: ISON Burns Up

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NASA’s STEREO-A spacecraft took this image of Comet ISON (at lower left) as it neared the Sun Nov. 25. We can see Comet Encke below ISON. The comet did not survive its perihelion passage. Image courtesy of NASA.

RIP Comet ISON aka C/2012 S1 or Comet Nevski-Novichonok.

The dear departed “Comet of the Century,” discovered Sept. 21, 2012, is no longer with us, according to a NASA pronouncement which came on the morning of December 2, 2013.

Comet ISON—named after one of the International Scientific Optical Network’s telescopes used by Russian discovers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok—has joined the burned-out remains of other Oort Cloud family members. Most notable among those fizzled deep-space companions of ISON is the equally underachieving Comet Kohoutek of 1973.

The news of Comet ISON’s fizzle came with little fanfare after the object made a live-or-die flyby close to the Sun on Thanksgiving Day.

Astronomers in the Northern Hemisphere were hoping that the comet would emerge brighter than ever; however, its fiery perihelion passage on November 28 was also its death knell.

According to civilian astrophysicist Dr. Karl Battams of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., ISON’s obituary was short and bittersweet. Battams wryly announced the comet’s fizzle on NASA’s Comet ISON Observing Campaign website during the morning of December 2, 2013.

ISON: A Comet ‘s Obituary

Born in a dusty and turbulent environment, Comet ISON spent its early years being jostled and struck by siblings both large and small… around 3 million B.C., a chance encounter with a passing star coerced ISON into undertaking a pioneering career as a Sungrazer. On Sept. 21, 2012, ISON made itself known to us… ISON lived a dynamic and unpredictable life… Tragically, on Nov. 28, 2013, ISON’s tenacious ambition outweighed its ability, and our shining green candle in the solar wind began to burn out… Comet ISON leaves behind an unprecedented legacy for astronomers, and the eternal gratitude of an enthralled global audience. In ISON’s memory, donations are encouraged to your local astronomy club, observatory or charity that supports STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) and science outreach programs for children,” Battams blogged December 2, 2013. 

Comet ISON: Media Hype

University of Vermont astrophysicist Dr. John Perry wasn’t too surprised that the comet didn’t make it past its closest solar approach—within one solar diameter. He told Decoded Science,

“ISON’s nucleus was about the size of the City of Burlington, Vt. where I live—like all comets, it was made of ice and gas. So, it passed very close to the Sun and that fact determined what we’d see or not see after perihelion. It was broken apart by the Sun’s gravity and heat.”

Perry still remembers the news media hype regarding Comet Kohoutek. But he doesn’t think ISON was too overblown.

“I think there was a misrepresentation about just how bright it was supposed to be,” Perry said.

Comet ISON Burns Out

As astronomers everywhere bid Comet ISON’s brief, inner solar-system incandescence adieu, we say, too, farewell by paraphrasing a 19th century, English anti-war folk song:

“Why did ye scadaddle from me and the child? Oh, ISON, I hardly knew ye… Indeed your dancing days are done. Oh, ISON, I hardly knew ye.”

Resources:

Dr. Karl Battams. In Memoriam. (2013). Comet ISON Observing Campaign. Accessed December 3, 2013.

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