Over the course of April 28–29 a gigantic filament, briefly suspended above the surface* of the Sun, broke off and created an enormous snakelike eruption of plasma that extended millions of miles out into space. The event was both powerful and beautiful, another demonstration of the incredible energy and activity of our home star…and it was all captured on camera by two of our finest Sun-watching spacecraft.
Watch a video of the event below.
Made from data acquired by both NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and the joint ESA/NASA SOHO spacecraft, the video was compiled by astronomer and sungrazing comet specialist Karl Battams. It shows views of the huge filament before and after detaching from the Sun, and gives a sense of the enormous scale of the event.
At one point the plasma eruption spanned a distance over 33 times farther than the Moon is from Earth!
Filaments are long channels of solar material contained by magnetic fields that have risen up from within the Sun. They are relatively cooler than the visible face of the Sun behind them so they appear dark when silhouetted against it; when seen rising from the Sun’s limb they look bright and are called prominences.
When the magnetic field lines break apart, much of the material contained within the filaments gets flung out into space (a.k.a. a CME) while some gets pulled back down into the Sun. These events are fairly common but that doesn’t make them any less spectacular!
But the remnants — or whatever ISON is now — kept brightening and brightening and brightening in images from the NASA/European Space Agency Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. The pictures are still puzzling astronomers right now, almost a day after ISON’s closest encounter with the sun.
You can follow our liveblogged confusion yesterday, capped by a gobsmacking announcement from the Naval Research Laboratory’s Karl Battams, “We believe some small part of ISON’s nucleus has SURVIVED perihelion,” he said on Twitter. Since then, Battams wrote a detailed blog post, referring to images from the Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph (LASCO) aboard SOHO:
“Matthew [Knight] and I are ripping our hair out right now as we know that so many people in the public, the media and in science teams want to know what’s happened. We’d love to know that too! Right now, here’s our working hypothesis: As comet ISON plunged towards to the Sun, it began to fall apart, losing not giant fragments but at least a lot of reasonably sized chunks. There’s evidence of very large dust in the form of that long thin tail we saw in the LASCO C2 images.
Then, as ISON plunged through the corona, it continued to fall apart and vaporize, and lost its coma and tail completely just like Lovejoy did in 2011. (We have our theories as to why it didn’t show up in the SDO images but that’s not our story to tell – the SDO team will do that.) Then, what emerged from the Sun was a small but perhaps somewhat coherent nucleus, that has resumed emitting dust and gas for at least the time being. In essence, the tail is growing back, as Lovejoy’s did.
So while our theory certainly has holes, right now it does appear that a least some small fraction of ISON has remained in one piece and is actively releasing material. We have no idea how big this nucleus is, if there is indeed one. If there is a nucleus, it is still too soon to tell how long it will survive. If it does survive for more than a few days, it is too soon to tell if the comet will be visible in the night sky. If it is visible in the night sky, it is too soon to say how bright it will be…
This morning (EST), Battams succinctly summarized the latest images he saw: “Based on a few more hours of data, comet #ISON appears to be… well, behaving like a comet!”, he wrote on Twitter.
NASA issued a status update this morning saying it’s unclear if this leftover is debris or an actual nucleus, but added that “late-night analysis from scientists with NASA’s Comet ISON Observing Campaign suggest that there is at least a small nucleus intact.” NASA, as well as Battams, pointed out that comet has behaved unpredictably throughout the 15 months scientists and amateurs have been observing it.
Throughout the year that researchers have watched Comet ISON – and especially during its final approach to the sun – the comet brightened and dimmed in unexpected ways. Such brightness changes usually occur in response to material boiling off the comet, and different material will do so at different temperatures thus providing clues as to what the comet is made of. Analyzing this pattern will help scientists understand the composition of ISON, which contains material assembled during the very formation of the solar system some 4.5 billion years ago.
Slate Bad Astronomy blogger Phil Plait jokingly threw out phrases like “What the what?” on Twitter yesterday, but added in a late-night update: “If you haven’t figured this out yet: We are *loving* this. The Universe surprises us yet again! How awesome!” He continued with his astonishment in a blog post:
For those keeping score at home, it got bright, then it faded, then it got all smeared out, then it came around the Sun smeared out, and then it seemed to get its act together again. At this point, I refuse to make any further conclusions about this comet; it seems eager to confuse. I’ve been hearing from comet specialists who are just as baffled… which is fantastic! If we knew what was going on, there’d be nothing more to learn.
From my initial look at ISON in today’s SOHO images, it seems nucleus has mostly disintegrated. Will only know if part of ISON nucleus has survived by continuing observations and performing more analysis. Bright fan-shape implies lots of material was released and travelling along ISON orbit, not confined in a traditional tail. Would be interesting to learn more about composition of debris to help us piece together what’s happened, but we need more time.
Update, 8:35 p.m. EST: Uncertainty about Comet ISON’s fate likely will persist for some time. Karl Battams just tweeted that after 2,000 sungrazing comet observations, he has never seen brightening in the same way that ISON (or its remains) appear to be doing right now. We’ll keep watching. Real-time images are available on this website.
Update, 6:30 p.m. EST: An excellent blog post from Phil Plait (who writes the Bad Astronomy blog on Slate) summarizes his take of the comet’s fate; debris (most likely, he says) continues to show up in images. An except: “It held together a long time, got very bright last night, faded this morning, then apparently fell apart. This isn’t surprising; we see comets disintegrate often enough as they round the Sun. ISON’s nucleus was only a couple of kilometers across at best, so it would have suffered under the Sun’s heat more than a bigger comet would have. Still, there’s more observing to do, and of course much data over which to pore.”
Update, 4:40 p.m. EST:On Twitter, the European Space Agency (quoting SOHO scientist Bernhard Fleck) said the comet is gone. Separately, the Naval Research Laboratory’s Karl Battams posted that he thinks recent observations show debris from ISON, but not a nucleus. Astronomers are still monitoring, however.
Update, 3:56 p.m. EST: Something has emerged from perihelion, but the experts are divided as to whether it’s leftovers of ISON’s tail, or the comet itself. Stay tuned.
The fate of Comet C/2012 S1 ISON is uncertain. It made its closest approach to the sun today (Nov. 28) around 1:44 p.m. EST (6:44 p.m. UTC). As of Thursday night, what’s happening to the comet is still unclear, as observers try to keep up hopes for a good comet show in the next few weeks.
It will take a few more hours until NASA and other agencies can say for sure what the comet’s fate is. That said, there still is valuable science that can be performed if ISON has broken up — more details below the jump.
ISON coincided with American Thanksgiving, causing a lot of astronomers and journalists to work holiday hours while pundits made jokes about the comet being “roasted” along with the turkey. Meanwhile, amateur astronomer Stuart Atkinson — author of the Waiting for ISON blog — was among those eagerly awaiting the comet’s closest approach.
But as the comet made its closest approach, astronomers grew more and more skeptical than it had survived. Phil Plait (who writes the Bad Astronomy blog on Slate) pointed out that the comet’s nucleus appeared much dimmer than its tail in images from SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory), NASA’s sun-gazing spacecraft. This implied that the nucleus was disintegrating.
Plait and Karl Battams — a Naval Research Laboratory astrophysicist who operates the Sungrazing Comets Project — both participated in a NASA Google+ Hangout on ISON. As of about 2 p.m. EST (7 p.m. UTC), both said that they believe ISON is an “ex-comet”, although it will be a few more hours before scientists can say for sure.
The challenge is that the two spacecraft used to watch ISON swing around the sun — the Solar Dynamics Observatory and SOHO — are not necessarily designed to look for comets. Battams and Plait initially said that it sometimes take additional image processing to view information in it. more As time elapsed though, both expressed extreme skepticism that the comet survived.
Even if the comet is dead, Plait pointed out that scientists can still learn a lot from the remaining debris. ISON is believed to be a pristine example of bodies in the Oort Cloud, a vast body of small objects beyond the orbit of Neptune. Examining the dust in its debris trail could tell scientists more about the origins of the solar system.
“The fact that it’s broken up is really cool. There’s a lot we can learn from it and a lot we can get from it,” he said.
Battams added that ISON has been a very unpredictable comet, flaring up when people expected it would fade, and vice versa. “ISON is just weird. It has behaved unpredictably at times. When it’s done something strange, we spent some time scratching our heads, figuring out what is going on and we think we know what it’s doing … it then goes and does something different.”
Amid the waiting came the inevitable social media jokes (including science fiction and fantasy references.)
For others, the comet served as an inspiration for daring to be courageous.