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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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”

Weekend Aurora Alert: The Sun Lets Loose an Earth-Directed CME

The Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this view as the Sun let loose with its biggest solar flare of the year so far. It’s not a real big one — a mid-level flare classified as an M6.5 – but an associated coronal mass ejection is heading towards Earth and could spur some nice auroae by this weekend. Spaceweather.com predicts the expanding cloud (see animation below) will probably deliver a glancing blow to Earth’s magnetic field late on April 12th or more likely April 13th. The NOAA Space Prediction Center forecasts this event to cause moderate (G2) Geomagnetic Storm activity, and predicts geomagnetic activity to start in the mid to latter part (UTC) of April 13. They add that the source region is still potent and well-positioned for more geoeffective activity in the next few days.

 The magnetic field of sunspot AR1719 erupted on April 11th at 0716 UT, producing an M6-class solar flare. Coronagraph images from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory show a CME emerging from the blast site of the M6.5 solar flare. Credit: NASA
The magnetic field of sunspot AR1719 erupted on April 11th at 0716 UT, producing an M6-class solar flare. Coronagraph images from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory show a CME emerging from the blast site of the M6.5 solar flare. Credit: NASA

See this NASA page for info on solar flares, CMEs, and more.

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of an M6.5 class flare at 3:16 am EDT on April 11, 2013. This image shows a combination of light in wavelengths of 131 and 171 Angstroms. Credit: NASA/SDO.
NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of an M6.5 class flare at 3:16 am EDT on April 11, 2013. This image shows a combination of light in wavelengths of 131 and 171 Angstroms. Credit: NASA/SDO.

Spacecraft Captures Mercury-Jupiter Conjunction

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Here’s a great shot from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft of Mercury (top planet) and Jupiter snuggling up together, along with the Pleiades cluster, all close to Sun, as seen from SOHO’s LASCO C3 instrument (Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph). SOHO has been in space since 1995, and is a workhorse of solar observing, giving us insights into the workings of the Sun, comets and other bodies in the Solar System. Check out the SOHO website for more great images.

Hat tip to @Sungrazercomets on Twitter.

Watch Jupiter as a ‘Space Invader’

This great video created from images taken by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) on May 13 and 14 show Jupiter as it comes close to the Sun (from our vantage point) in a solar conjunction. But what it really looks like is the old “Space Invaders” video game, with Jupiter marching across the screen. There’s even a couple of sungrazing comets “pewpew-ing” in like the laser cannon shots in the game, and a coronal mass ejection completes the scene as an explosion (which is actually more like “Asteroids.”) For more fun, the team who created this video at the Naval Research Laboratory’s Sungrazing Comets website takes the time to show all the different objects in the scene, which amazingly includes Callisto and Ganymede, two of Jupiter’s moons. All it needs is the funky video game background music.
Continue reading “Watch Jupiter as a ‘Space Invader’”

Navy Scientists Spot New Solar Structures

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There’s something new under the Sun… well, just above the Sun, actually. Scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory have spotted structures in the Sun’s super-hot corona that may shed some light on the way its magnetic fields evolve — especially near the edges of vast, wind-spewing coronal holes.

Coronal holes are regions where the Sun’s magnetic field doesn’t loop back down but rather streams outward into space. Appearing dark in images captured in ultraviolet wavelengths, these holes in the corona allow solar material to flow directly out into the solar system, in many cases doubling the normal rate of the solar wind.

Recently witnessed by NRL researchers using NASA’s SDO and STEREO solar-observing spacecraft, features called coronal cells exist at the boundaries of coronal holes and may be closely associated with their formation and behavior.

The coronal cells are plumes of magnetic activity that stream upward from the Sun, occurring in clusters. Likened to “candles on a birthday cake”, the incredibly hot (1 million K) plumes extend outwards, punching though the lower corona.

Seen near the center of the Sun’s disk, the cells appear structurally similar to granules — short-lived areas of rising and falling solar material on the Sun’s photosphere — but seen from an angle via STEREO, the cells were witnessed to be much larger, elongated and extending higher into the Sun’s atmosphere. For comparison, granules are typically about 1,000 km in diameter while the coronal cells have been measured at 30,000 km across.

“We think the coronal cells look like flames shooting up, like candles on a birthday cake,” said Neil Sheeley, a solar scientist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. “When you see them from the side, they look like flames. When you look at them straight down they look like cells. And we had a great way of checking this out, because we could look at them from the top and from the side at the same time using observations from SDO, STEREO-A, and STEREO-B.”

Watch a video below of cells made from images acquired by STEREO-B… note how their elongated structure becomes evident as the cells rotate closer to the Sun’s limb.

NRL researchers also noted that the coronal cells appeared when adjacent coronal holes closed and disappeared when the holes opened, suggesting that the holes and cells share the same magnetic structure. In addition, the coronal cells were seen to disappear when a solar filament would erupt nearby, being “extinguished” as the cooler strand of solar material moved across them. Once the filament passed, the cells reformed — again, indicating a direct magnetic association.

The coronal cells were also identified in earlier images from ESA and NASA’s SOHO and Japan’s Hinode spacecraft.

It’s hoped that further study of these candle-like structures will lead to more knowledge of our star’s complex magnetic field and the effects it has on space weather and geomagnetic activity experienced here on Earth.

Read the press release from the Naval Research Laboratory here, and on NASA’s STEREO site here.

So Long, SWAN…

Remember that newly-discovered comet we mentioned a couple of days ago?  Well, it’s gone. Poof. Into the Sun and never to return, it was a sungrazer’s final voyage.

The video above features images from the SOHO spacecraft and description from Bad Astronomer Phil Plait, with music by Kevin MacLeod.

Alas, poor SWAN… at least we knew him.

Read more about the history of Comet SWAN on the Sungrazing Comets site. Video credit: NASA/SOHO (and thanks to Phil Plait for the assembly.)

What Does a Solar Storm Sound Like?

Of course, there is no sound in space, but sonfication is a process where any kind of non-auditory data is translated as sound. “We’re transforming space data into the sonic realm such that we can gain a new perspective, and begin to ask new questions,” said Robert Alexander, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, getting his Ph.D in Design Science, who created this great sonification video of the recent solar storm activity. Alexander used data from two spacecraft: SOHO, studying the Sun, and the MESSENGER spacecraft at Mercury, which has the University of Michigan’s Fast Imaging Plasma Spectrometer (FIPS) on board, an imaging mass spectrometer.

Mercury was recently bombarded with a solar storm, and the sound created from particles colliding with the FIPS is utterly horrifying, sounding like the worst monster you could ever imagine.
Continue reading “What Does a Solar Storm Sound Like?”

A New Comet’s SWAN Dive Into the Sun

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A new comet has been discovered by the SOHO team, and it — like Lovejoy before it, almost three months to the day — is headed directly toward the Sun. Discovered by SOHO’s SWAN instrument, the comet has been dubbed Comet SWAN… making this a real swan dive (or, perhaps more appropriately, its swan song.)

The animation above has a lot of random noise in it from recent solar outbursts… can you spot the comet? If not, read on…

Labeled frame of the LASCO image (courtesy of SpaceWeather.com)

There’s Comet SWAN, just above the darker silhouette of the bar that holds the shielding disk over the center of the imager (which blocks the glare from the Sun itself.)

The comet is likely another member of the Kreutz family of comets, an extended family of pieces that broke off a larger comet several hundred years ago (which itself may have been a survivor of a breakup in 371 B.C.!) Comet Lovejoy was also a Kretuz sungrazer but it was considerably larger and brighter, which may have helped it survive its Dec. 15 solar close encounter to re-emerge on the opposite side, surprising astronomers everywhere!

Read how some scientists think Comet Lovejoy held itself together.

SWAN may not be so lucky… but then again, we’ve been surprised before!

The comet will make perihelion — its closest approach to the Sun — on March 14. Stay tuned for more details!

Images via SpaceWeather.com.