22 Years Of The Sun From Soho

The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) is celebrating 22 years of observing the Sun, marking one complete solar magnetic cycle in the life of our star. SOHO is a joint project between NASA and the ESA and its mission is to study the internal structure of the sun, its extensive outer atmosphere, and the origin of the solar wind.

The activity cycle in the life of the Sun is based on the increase and decrease of sunspots. We’ve been watching this activity for about 250 years, but SOHO has taken that observing to a whole new level.

Though sunspot cycles work on an 11-year period, they’re caused by deeper magnetic changes in the Sun. Over the course of 22 years, the Sun’s polarity gradually shifts. At the 11 year mark, the orientation of the Sun’s magnetic field flips between the northern and southern hemispheres. At the end of the 22 year cycle, the field has shifted back to its original orientation. SOHO has now watched that cycle in its entirety.

The magnetic field of the Sun operates on a 22 year cycle. It takes 11 years for the orientation of the field to flip between the northern and southern hemisphere, and another 11 years to flip back to its original orientation. This composite image is made up of snapshots of the Sun taken with the Extreme ultraviolet Imaging Telescope on SOHO. Image: SOHO (ESA & NASA)

SOHO is a real success story. It was launched in 1995 and was designed to operate until 1998. But it’s been so successful that its mission has been prolonged and extended several times.

An artist’s illustration of the SOHO spacecraft. Image: NASA

SOHO’s 22 years of observation has turbo-charged our space weather forecasting ability. Space weather is heavily influenced by solar activity, mostly in the form of Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs). SOHO has observed well over 20,000 of these CMEs.

Space weather affects key aspects of our modern technological world. Space-based telecommunications, broadcasting, weather services and navigation are all affected by space weather. So are things like power distribution and terrestrial communications, especially at northern latitudes. Solar weather can also degrade not only the performance, but the lifespan, of communication satellites.

Besides improving our ability to forecast space weather, SOHO has made other important discoveries. After 40 years of searching, it was SOHO that finally found evidence of seismic waves in the Sun. Called g-modes, these waves revealed that the core of the Sun is rotating 4 times faster than the surface. When this discovery came to light, Bernhard Fleck, ESA SOHO project scientist said, “This is certainly the biggest result of SOHO in the last decade, and one of SOHO’s all-time top discoveries.”

Data from SOHO revealed that the core of the Sun rotates 4 times faster than the surface. Image: ESA

SOHO also has a front row seat for comet viewing. The observatory has witnessed over 3,000 comets as they’ve sped past the Sun. Though this was never part of SOHO’s mandate, its exceptional view of the Sun and its surroundings allows it to excel at comet-finding. It’s especially good at finding sun-grazer comets because it’s so close to the Sun.

“But nobody dreamed we’d approach 200 (comets) a year.” – Joe Gurman, mission scientist for SOHO.

“SOHO has a view of about 12-and-a-half million miles beyond the sun,” said Joe Gurman in 2015, mission scientist for SOHO at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “So we expected it might from time to time see a bright comet near the sun. But nobody dreamed we’d approach 200 a year.”

A front-row seat for sun-grazing comets allows SOHO to observe other aspects of the Sun’s surface. Comets are primitive relics of the early Solar System, and observing them with SOHO can tell scientists quite a bit about where they formed. If a comet has made other trips around the Sun, then scientists can learn something about the far-flung regions of the Solar System that they’ve traveled through.

Watching these sun-grazers as they pass close to the Sun also teaches scientists about the Sun. The ionized gas in their tails can illuminate the magnetic fields around the Sun. They’re like tracers that help observers watch these invisible magnetic fields. Sometimes, the magnetic fields have torn off these tails of ionized gas, and scientists have been able to watch these tails get blown around in the solar wind. This gives them an unprecedented view of the details in the movement of the wind itself.

It’s hard to make out, but the dot in the cross-hairs is a comet streaming toward the Sun. This image is from 2015, and the comet is the 3,000th one discovered by SOHO since it was launched. Image: SOHO/ESA/NASA

SOHO is still going strong, and keeping an eye on the Sun from its location about 1.5 million km from Earth. There, it travels in a halo orbit around LaGrange point 1. (It’s orbit is adjusted so that it can communicate clearly with Earth without interference from the Sun.)

Beyond the important science that SOHO provides, it’s also a source of amazing images. There’s a whole gallery of images here, and a selection of videos here.

In 2003, SOHO captured this image of a massive solar flare, the third most powerful ever observed in X-ray wavelengths. Very spooky. Image: NASA/ESA/SOHO

You can also check out daily views of the Sun from SOHO here.

Watch an Enormous “Plasma Snake” Erupt from the Sun

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!

Also read: Watch the Sun Split Apart

This same particularly long filament has also been featured as the Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD), in a photo captured on April 27 by Göran Strand.

For more solar news follow Karl Battams on Twitter.

Image credits: ESA/NASA/SOHO & SDO/NASA and the AIA science team.

*The Sun, being a mass of incandescent gas, doesn’t have a “surface” like rocky planets do so in this case we’re referring to its photosphere and chromosphere.

Kamikaze Comet Loses its Head

Like coins, most comet have both heads and tails. Occasionally, during a close passage of the Sun, a comet’s head will be greatly diminished yet still retain a classic cometary outline. Rarely are we left with nothing but a tail. How eerie it looks. Like a feather plucked from some cosmic deity floating down from the sky. Welcome to C/2015 D1 SOHO, the comet that almost didn’t make it. 

It was discovered on Feb. 18 by Thai amateur astronomer and writer Worachate Boonplod from the comfort of his office while examining photographs taken with the coronagraph on the orbiting Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). A coronagraph blocks the fantastically bright Sun with an opaque disk, allowing researchers to study the solar corona as well as the space near the Sun. Boonplod regularly examines real-time SOHO images for comets and has a knack for spotting them; in 2014 alone he discovered or co-discovered 35 comets without so much as putting on a coat.


Learn why there are so many sungrazing comets

Most of them belong to a group called Kreutz sungrazers, the remains of a much larger comet that broke to pieces in the distant past. The vast majority of the sungrazers fritter away to nothing as they’re pounded by the Sun’s gravity and vaporize in its heat. D1 SOHO turned out to be something different – a non-group comet belonging to neither the Kreutz family nor any other known family.

After a perilously close journey only 2.6 million miles from the Sun’s 10,000° surface, D1 SOHO somehow emerged with two thumbs up en route to the evening sky. After an orbit was determined, we published a sky map here at Universe Today encouraging observers to see if and when the comet might first become visible. Although it was last seen at around magnitude +4.5 on Feb. 21 by SOHO, hopes were high the comet might remain bright enough to see with amateur telescopes.

On Wednesday evening Feb. 25, Justin Cowart, a geologist and amateur astronomer from Alto Pass, Illinois figured he’d have a crack at it. Cowart didn’t have much hope after hearing the news that the comet may very well have crumbled apart after the manner of that most famous of disintegrators, Comet ISON . ISON fragmented even before perihelion in late 2013, leaving behind an expanding cloud of exceedingly faint dust.

Animation showing the possible D1 SOHO comet and its position marked on an atlas based on its orbit. Credit: Justin Cowart / Jose Chambo
Animation showing the D1 SOHO comet and its position marked on an atlas based on its orbit. Credit: Justin Cowart / José Chambo

Cowart set up a camera and tracking mount anyway and waited for clearing in the west after sunset. Comet D1 SOHO was located some 10° above the horizon near the star Theta Piscium in a bright sky. Justin aimed and shot:

“I was able to see stars down to about 6th magnitude in the raw frames, but no comet,” wrote Cowart.  “I decided to stack my frames and see if I could do some heavy processing to bring out a faint fuzzy. To my surprise, when DeepSkyStacker spit out the final image I could see a faint cloud near Theta Picsium, right about where the comet expected to be!”

Cowart sent the picture off to astronomer Karl Battams, who maintains the Sungrazer Project website, for his opinion. Battams was optimistic but felt additional confirmation was necessary. Meanwhile, comet observer José Chambo got involved in the discussion and plotted D1’s position on a star atlas (in the blinking photo above) based on a recent orbit calculation. Bingo! The fuzzy streak in Justin’s photo matched the predicted position, making it the first ground-based observation of the new visitor.

Comet D1 SOHO's orbit is steeply inclined to the ecliptic. It's now headed into the northern sky, sliding up the eastern side of Pegasus into Andromeda. Credit: JPL
Comet D1 SOHO’s orbit is steeply inclined to the ecliptic. It’s now headed into the northern sky, sliding up the eastern side of Pegasus into Andromeda as it recedes from both Earth and Sun. Credit: JPL Horizons

Comet D1 SOHO’s orbit is steeply inclined (70°) to the Earth’s orbit. After rounding the Sun, it turned sharply north and now rises higher in the western sky with each passing night for northern hemisphere skywatchers. Pity that the Moon has been a harsh mistress, washing out the sky just as the comet is beginning to gain altitude. These less-than-ideal circumstances haven’t prevented other astrophotographers from capturing the rare sight of a tailless comet. On Feb. 2, Jost Jahn of Amrum, Germany took an even clearer image, confirming Cowart’s results.

This photo, which confirms Cowart's observation, was taken on Feb. 27 from Germany. Jost Jahn stacked 59 15-second exposures (ISO 1600, f/2.4) taken with an 85mm telescope. Credit: Jost Jahn
This photo, which confirmed Justin Cowart’s observation, was taken on Feb. 27 from Germany. Jost Jahn stacked 59 15-second exposures (ISO 1600, f/2.4) taken with an 85mm telescope to capture D1’s faint tail. Credit: Jost Jahn

To date, there have been no visual observations of D1 SOHO made with binoculars or telescopes, so it’s difficult to say exactly how bright it is. Perhaps magnitude +10? Low altitude, twilight and moonlight as well as the comet’s diffuse appearance have conspired to make it a lofty challenge. That will change soon.

Comet D1 SOHO's dim remnant on Feb. 28, 2015. Credit: Francois Kugel
Comet D1 SOHO’s dim remnant on Feb. 28, 2015 looks like it was applied with spray paint. Credit: Francois Kugel / fkometes.pagesperso-orange.fr/index.html

Once the Moon begins its departure from the evening sky on March 6-7, a window of darkness will open. Fortuitously, D1 SOHO will be even higher up and set well after twilight ends. I’m as eager as many of you are to train my scope in its direction and bid both hello and farewell to a comet we’ll never see again.

Map to help you find Comet C/2015 D1 SOHO March 2-8 around 7 p.m. (CST) and 8 p.m. CDT on March 8. Stars are shown to magnitude 6.5. Source: Chris Marriott's SkyMap
Map to help you find Comet C/2015 D1 SOHO March 2-7 around 7 p.m. (CST) and 8 p.m. CDT on March 8. Stars are shown to magnitude 8. See also below. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

Here are fresh maps based on the most recent orbit published by the Minor Planet Center. Assuming you wait until after Full Moon, start looking for the comet in big binoculars or a moderate to large telescope right at the end of evening twilight when it’s highest in a dark sky. The comet sets two hours after the end of twilight on March 7th from the central U.S.

Broader view with north up and west to the right showing nightly comet positions at 7 p.m. CST through March 7 and then 8 p.m. CDT thereafter. Click to enlarge. Source: Chris Marriott's Stellarium
Broader view with north up and west to the right showing nightly comet positions at 7 p.m. CST through March 7 and then 8 p.m. CDT thereafter. Stars to magnitude +9. Click to enlarge. Source: Chris Marriott’s Stellarium

A New Sungrazing Comet May Brighten in the Evening Sky, Here’s How to See It

A newly-discovered comet may soon become bright enough to see from a sky near you. Originally dubbed SOHO-2875, it was spotted in photos taken by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) earlier this week. Astronomer Karl Battams, who maintains the Sungrazer Project website, originally thought this little comet would dissipate after its close brush with the Sun. To his surprise, it outperformed expectations and may survive long enough to see in the evening sky.

SOHO-2875 seen in a second, wide-field coronograph called LASCO C2 at 2:42 a.m. today Feb. 20. It's already moved a good distance to the west-southwest of the Sun and still displays a short tail. Credit: NASA/ESA
C/2015 D1 (SOHO) seen in a second, wide-field coronograph called LASCO C3 at 2:42 a.m. Feb. 20. Since then it’s well to the east of the Sun into the evening sky. Credit: NASA/ESA

Most sungrazing comets discovered by SOHO are members of the Kreutz family, a group of icy fragments left over from the breakup of a single much larger comet centuries ago. We know they’re all family by their similar orbits. The newcomer, SOHO’s 2,875th comet discovery, is a “non-group” comet or one that’s unrelated to the Kreutz family or any other comet club for that matter. According to Battams these mavericks appear several times a year. As of today (Feb. 24) its official name is C/2015 D1 (SOHO).

Composite of Comet SOHO-2875 crossing the C2 coronagraph field yesterday. Credit: NASA/ESA/Barbara Thompson
Composite of Comet SOHO-2875 crossing the C2 coronagraph field Feb. 19. Credit: NASA/ESA/Barbara Thompson

What’s unusual about #2,875 is how bright it is. At least for now, it appears to have survived the Sun’s heat and gravitational tides and is turning around to the east headed for the evening sky. Before it left SOHO’s field of view on Feb. 21, the comet was still around magnitude +4-4.5.

No one can say for sure whether it has what it takes to hang on, so don’t get your hopes up just yet. Battams and others carefully calculated the comet’s changing position in the SOHO images and sent the data off to the Minor Planet Center, which today published an orbit.

Newly-named Comet C/2015 D1 (SOHO) will share the sky with Venus and Mars at dusk. For the next few nights it will be quite low and nearly impossible to see. Its situation improves over time as the comet moves rapidly northward into Pegasus and Andromeda. Tick marks show the comet's position each evening. Stars are shown to magnitude +6.5. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
Newly-named Comet C/2015 D1 (SOHO) will share the sky with Venus and Mars at dusk. For the next few nights it will be quite low and nearly impossible to see. Its situation improves over time as the comet moves rapidly northward into Pegasus and Andromeda. Tick marks show the comet’s position each evening. Stars are shown to magnitude +6.5. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Based on this preliminary orbit, I’ve plotted SOHO-2875’s path for the next couple weeks as it tracks up through Pisces and Pegasus during the early evening hours. Given that it’s probably no brighter than magnitude +6 at the moment and very low in the west at dusk, it may still be swamped in twilight’s glow.

Barring an unexpected outburst, there’s no question that the comet will fade in the coming days as its distance from both the Earth and Sun increase. Right now it’s 79 million miles from us and 28 million miles from the Sun. That puts it about 8 million miles closer to the Sun than the planet Mercury.

Comet SOHO-2875 survived its close passage of the Sun and may make an appearance in the evening sky soon. This photo montage was made using the coronagraph (Sun-blocking device) on SOHO. Click to watch a movie of the comet. Credit: NASA/ESA
Comet SOHO-2875 survived its close passage of the Sun and may make an appearance in the evening sky soon. This photo montage was made using the coronagraph (Sun-blocking device) on SOHO. Click to watch a movie of the comet. Credit: NASA/ESA

I drew up the chart for about 75 minutes after sunset in late twilight. Keep in mind that since the comet’s positions were determined via spacecraft imagery, which isn’t as precise as photographing it from ground observatories, its orbit is preliminary. That means it may not be on the precise path shown on the map. Be sure you search up-down and right-left of the plotted locations.

It’s also very possible the comet is in the process of disintegration after perihelion passage, so it may not be a dense, compact object but rather a diffuse cloud of glowing dust. Will it go the way of Comet ISON and fade away to nothing? Who knows? I sure don’t but can’t wait to find out what it’s up to the next clear night.

BTW, if you’ve got a software program that downloads orbital elements for comets to create your own charts, you’ll find the numbers you need in today’s Minor Planet Circular. Be sure to use the “post-perihelion” elements that predict the comet’s location from here on out.

ISON Stopped Making Dust Just Before It Passed By The Sun And Disintegrated

Last year’s Thanksgiving adventure for astronomers happened when Comet ISON passed within 1.2 million kilometres (750,000 miles) of the Sun. While many people were hoping the comet would stick around and produce a good show, the comet disintegrated despite a brief flare-up shortly after passing perihelion.

Scientists have just modelled the production of dust on the comet and concluded there was a “violent outburst” that happened 8.5 hours before closest approach, when the comet spewed out 11,500 tonnes (12,765 tons) of material.

“It is most likely that the final break-up of the nucleus triggered this eruption, abruptly releasing gas and dust trapped inside the nucleus,” stated Werner Curdt from the Max Planck Institute of Solar System Research, who was the lead researcher on the project. “Within a few hours the dust production stopped completely.”

Because the last few parts of the comet’s encounter were obscured by an occulting disk on the Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph on the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), astronomers decided to model the encounter based on other data they gathered before and after.

Comet ISON captured in an image from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO)'s Solar Ultraviolet Measurements of Emitted Radiation (SUMER) instrument. Credit: MPS
Comet ISON captured in an image from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO)’s Solar Ultraviolet Measurements of Emitted Radiation (SUMER) instrument. Credit: MPS

They did have one source of data, which was another instrument called the Solar Ultraviolet Measurements of Emitted Radiation (SUMER). It’s usually used to investigate plasma activity on the sun and not faint comets, but the scientists felt it could be repurposed. T

hey switched modes on the instrument and captured the tail in far ultraviolet light, light “emitted from the solar disc and reflected by the dust particles into space,” the European Space Agency stated.

Then they compared what they saw with computer simulations, coming up with the dust estimations.

The paper is available in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics and also in preprint version on Arxiv.

Source: European Space Agency

Yesterday’s Mammoth Solar Flare Is The Biggest Of 2014 So Far

She’s a rainbow! You can see the first moments of a huge flare belching off the sun in the picture above. The so-called X-class flare erupted a few hours ago (at 7:25 p.m. EST Feb. 24, or 12:25 a.m. UTC Feb. 25) and was captured by several spacecraft. If you have a pictures of the sun yourself to share, feel free to post them in the Universe Today Flickr pool.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory saw the flare growing in at least six different wavelengths of light, which are visible in the image above. This is classified this as an X4.9-class flare, which shows that it is pretty strong. X-flares are the most powerful kind that the sun emits, and each X number is supposed to be twice as intense as the previous one (so an X-2 flare is twice as powerful as X-1, for example).

SpaceWeather.com says this is the most powerful flare of the year so far, emitted from sunspot AR1967 (or more properly speaking, AR1990; sunspots are renamed if they survive a full rotation of the sun, as this one has done twice already!) While solar flares can lead to auroras, in this case it appears the blast was pointed in the wrong direction, the site added.

“Although this flare is impressive, its effects are mitigated by the location of the blast site–near the sun’s southeastern limb, and not facing Earth,” SpaceWeather stated. “Indeed, a bright coronal mass ejection (CME) which raced away from the sun shortly after the flare appears set to miss our planet.”

This image from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory illustrates increased solar activity between Feb. 18-20, 2014. Credit: ESA/NASA/SOHO/GSFC
This image from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory illustrates increased solar activity between Feb. 18-20, 2014. Credit: ESA/NASA/SOHO/GSFC

The sun goes through an 11-year cycle of sunspot and solar activity, which is supposed to be at its peak right now. This particular peak has been very muted, but lately things have been picking up. The European Space Agency noted that between Feb. 18 and 20, the sun sent out six CMEs in three days, with most of them moving in different directions.

“This level of activity is consistent with what we might expect as the Sun is near its maximum period of activity in the 11-year solar cycle,” ESA stated.

You can see the sun changing on this SDO page, showing the latest views of the sun in different wavelengths. And for more information on sunspots, check out this NASA page explaining a little more about how they work.

Astro-Challenge: Nabbing Venus… at Inferior Conjunction

Residents of high northern latitudes can take heart this frigid January: this coming weekend offers a chance to replicate a unique astronomical sighting.

Veteran sky watcher Bob King recently wrote a post for Universe Today describing what observers can expect from the planet Venus for the last few weeks of this current evening apparition leading  up to Venus’s passage between the Earth and the Sun on January 11th. Like so many other readers, we’ve been holding a nightly vigil to see when the last date will be that we can spot the fleeing world… and some great pics have been pouring in.

But did you know that when the conditions are just right, that you can actually spy Venus at the moment of inferior conjunction?

No, we’re not talking about a rare transit of Venus as last occurred on June 6th, 2012, when Venus crossed the disk of the Sun as seen from our Earthly perspective… you’ll have to wait until 2117 to see that occur again. What we’re talking about is a passage of Venus high above or below the solar disk, when spying it while the Sun sits just below the horizon might just be possible.

The disk of Venus at inferior conjunction. Simulation created by the author using Starry Night.
The disk of Venus at inferior conjunction. Simulation created by the author using Stellarium.

Not all inferior conjunctions of Venus are created equal. The planet’s orbit is tilted 3 degrees with respect to our own and can thus pass a maximum of eight degrees north or south of the Sun. Venus last did this on inferior conjunction in 2009 and will once again pass a maximum distance north of the Sun in 2017. For the southern hemisphere, the red letter years are 2007, and next year in 2015.

You’ll note that the above periods mark out an 8-year cycle, a period after which a roughly similar apparition of the planet Venus repeats. This is because Venus takes just over 224 days to complete one orbit, and 13 orbits of Venus very nearly equals 8 Earth years.

And while said northern maximum is still three years away, this week’s inferior conjunction is close at five degrees from the solar limb. The best prospects to see Venus at or near inferior conjunction occur for observers “North of the 60”. We accomplished this feat two Venusian 8-year cycles ago during the inferior conjunction of January 16th, 1998 from latitude 65 degrees north just outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. We set up on the Chena Flood Channel, assuring as low and as flat a horizon as possible… and we kept the engine of our trusty Jeep Wrangler idling as a refuge from the -40 degrees Celsius temperatures!

A daytime Venus just over five days from inferior conjunction. Credit
A 1.3% illuminated daytime Venus just over five days from inferior conjunction. Credit Shahrin Ahmad www.shahgazer.net

It took us several frigid minutes of sweeping the horizon with binoculars before we could pick up the dusky dot of Venus through the low atmospheric murk and pervasive ice fog. We could just glimpse Venus unaided afterward, once we knew exactly where to look!

This works because the ecliptic is at a relatively shallow enough angle to the horizon as seen from the high Arctic that Venus gets its maximum ~five degree “boost” above the horizon.

A word of warning is also in order not to attempt this sighting while the dazzling (and potentially eye damaging) Sun is above the horizon. Start sweeping the horizon for Venus about 30 minutes before local sunrise, with the limb of the Sun safely below the horizon.

Venus presents a disk 1’ 02” across as seen from Earth during inferior conjunction, the largest of any planet and the only one that can appear larger than an arc minute in size. Ironically, both Venus and Earth reach perihelion this month. Said disk is, however, only 0.4% illuminated and very near the theoretical edge of visibility known as the Danjon Limit. And although the technical visual magnitude of Venus at inferior conjunction is listed as -3.1, expect that illumination scattered across that razor thin crescent to be more like magnitude -0.6 due to atmospheric extinction.

The mid-January passage of Venus through the field of view of SOHO's LASCO C3 imager. Field orientation is set for January 7th. Created using Starry Nite Software.
The mid-January passage of Venus through the field of view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 imager. Field orientation is set for January 7th. Created using Starry Nite Software.

Are you one of the +99% of the world’s citizens that doesn’t live in the high Arctic? You can still watch the passage of Venus from the relative warmth of your home online, via the Solar Heliospheric Observatory’s (SOHO) vantage point in space. SOHO sits at the sunward L1 point between the Earth and the Sun and has been monitoring Sol with a battery on instruments ever since its launch in 1995. A great side benefit of this is that SOHO also catches sight of planets and the occasional comet that strays near the Sun in its LASCO C2 and C3 cameras. Venus will begin entering the 15 degree wide field of view for SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera on January 7th, and you’ll be able to trace it all the way back out until January 14th.

Venus post solar transit as seen in SOHO's LASCO C3 imager. Credit-ESA/NASA
Venus post solar transit as seen in SOHO’s LASCO C3 imager. Credit-ESA/NASA

From there on out, Venus will enter the early morning sky. When is the first date that you can catch it from your latitude with binoculars and /or the naked eye? Venus spends most of the remainder of 2014 in the dawn, reaching greatest elongation 46.6 degrees west of the Sun on March 22nd, 2014 and is headed back towards superior conjunction on the farside of the Sun on October 25th, 2014. But there’s lots more Venusian action in 2014 in store…. more to come!

Zombie ISON ‘Behaving Like A Comet’, Stunned Astronomers Say

Talk about the Comeback Kid. After Comet C/2012 S1 ISON rounded the sun yesterday afternoon, professional astronomers around the world looked at the faded debris and concluded it was an “ex-comet.” NASA wrapped up an hours-long Google+ Hangout with that news. The European Space Agency declared it was dead on Twitter.

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.

After its closest approach to to the sun on Nov. 28 (left), Comet ISON appeared a dim shadow of its former self (at right). "The comet may still be intact," NASA wrote on Nov. 29. Images from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. Credit: ESA/NASA/SOHO/Jhelioviewer
After its closest approach to to the sun on Nov. 28 (left), Comet ISON appeared a dim shadow of its former self (at right). “The comet may still be intact,” NASA wrote on Nov. 29. Images from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. Credit: ESA/NASA/SOHO/Jhelioviewer

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.

Mike Hankey of Monkton, Maryland took this photo of Comet ISON in outburst this morning Nov. 14. The tail now shows multiple streamers. Click to enlarge. Credit: Mike Hankey
Mike Hankey of Monkton, Maryland took this photo of Comet ISON in outburst Nov. 14. The tail showed multiple streamers. Click to enlarge. Credit: Mike Hankey

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.

Science confusion: Comet ISON made its closest approach to the sun Nov. 28. Although it showed up again in images from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, scientists could not spot it using the ESA PROBA-2 spacecraft (view pictured). ISON's composition or proximity to the sun may have caused this. Credit: PROBA-2 Science Centre
Science confusion: Comet ISON made its closest approach to the sun Nov. 28. Although it showed up again in images from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, scientists could not spot it using the ESA PROBA-2 spacecraft (view pictured). ISON’s composition or proximity to the sun may have caused this. Credit: PROBA-2 Science Centre

In a series of Twitter posts this morning, the European Space Agency’s science feed offered this take from Gerhard Schwehm, ESA’s head of planetary science:

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.

Other spacecraft searching for ISON were not able to spot it. For ESA’s PROBA-2, it may have been because of its composition or proximity to the sun, but scientists are unsure. It was also invisible in NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory; “scientists are still looking at the data to figure out why,” an agency Twitter update stated this morning.

So to sum up: no one’s quite sure of what is happening now, or what is happening next, but we will keep you posted and let you know if and when you can see ISON again in your home telescopes.

One of the finest pictures to date of Comet ISON by ace astrophotographer Damian Peach taken on Oct. 27.
One of the finest pictures to date of Comet ISON by ace astrophotographer Damian Peach taken on Oct. 27.

Is Comet ISON Dead? Astronomers Say It’s Likely After Icarus Sun-Grazing Stunt

Update, 9:55 pm EST: It’s a Thanksgiving miracle: apparently it now looks like ISON has actually survived!!

Image from SOHO indicates a chunk of Comet ISON has survived its close pass of the Sun. Credit: NASA/ESA/SOHO.
Image from SOHO indicates a chunk of Comet ISON has survived its close pass of the Sun. Credit: NASA/ESA/SOHO.

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.

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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.

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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.)

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suthers

 

ison_isoff

 

For others, the comet served as an inspiration for daring to be courageous.

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Astronomy Cast 322: SOHO

As we’ve mentioned before, the Sun is a terrifying ball of plasma. It’s a good thing we’re keeping an eye on it. And that eye is the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO. Operating for more than 18 years now, SOHO has been making detailed observations of the Sun’s activity though an almost entire solar cycle. With so many years of operation, SOHO has some amazing stories to tell.

Continue reading “Astronomy Cast 322: SOHO”