Brighter than a Full Moon–The Biggest Star of 2013 Could be the Comet of the Century
Sky watching on the Baja next fall could include months of a once in a lifetime show. A comet discovered by two Russian astronomers will be visible from Earth this coming fall. 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.
Ison’s surface is very dark – darker than asphalt – pockmarked and dusty with ice beneath the surface. It’s a small body, a few tens of miles across, with a tiny pull of gravity. If you stood upon it you could leap 20 miles into space taking over a week to come down again, watching as the comet rotated beneath you. You could walk to the equator, kneel down and gather up handfuls of comet material to make snowballs, throw them in a direction against the comet’s spin and watch them hang motionless in front of you. But it will not remain quiet on Comet Ison for the Sun’s heat will bring it to life.
By the end of summer it will become visible in small telescopes and binoculars. By October it will pass close to Mars and things will begin to stir. The surface will shift as the ice responds to the thermal shock, cracks will appear in the crust, tiny puffs of gas will rise from it as it is warmed. The comet’s tail is forming.
Slowly at first but with increasing vigour, as it passes the orbit of Earth, the gas and dust geysers will gather force. The space around the comet becomes brilliant as the ice below the surface turns into gas and erupts, reflecting the light of the Sun. Now Ison is surrounded by a cloud of gas called the coma, hundreds of thousands of miles from side to side. The comet’s rotation curves these jets into space as they trail into spirals behind it. As they move out the gas trails are stopped and blown backwards by the Solar Wind.
By late November it will be visible to the unaided eye just after dark in the same direction as the setting Sun. Its tail could stretch like a searchlight into the sky above the horizon. Then it will swing rapidly around the Sun, passing within two million miles of it, far closer than any planet ever does, to emerge visible in the evening sky heading northward towards the pole star. It could be an “unaided eye” object for months. When it is close in its approach to the Sun it could become intensely brilliant but at that stage it would be difficult and dangerous to see without special instrumentation as it would be only a degree from the sun.