Comet ISON’s moment of truth not far away

Several months ago, it was heralded as the upcoming “Comet of the Century”. Whether exaggerated or not, the general theme in all predictions for Comet ISON, which is expected to streak through the sky during November and December 2013, was that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Some predictions even ventured to say that ISON would shine brighter than a full moon in the night sky, and be visible during the daylight hours.

But suddenly, as astronomers and amateurs alike began to capture new images of Comet ISON drawing closer to our neighborhood of the universe, the predictions changed. Newer imagery showed that ISON was not nearly as bright as anticipated, and out of the woodworks came the reports that the comet may not be seen at all.

While reports of the comet’s demise may be greatly exaggerated, the wild reports of an astronomical event for the ages may be as well. The truth it, we don’t know just yet how bright ISON may eventually be. The key lies in the path, and timing, of ISON’s future over the next few weeks.

Comet ISON, as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope on May 8th, 2013 as it passed somewhere between Jupiter and Mars.

Comet ISON, as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope on May 8th, 2013 as it passed somewhere between Jupiter and Mars.

ISON’s roots can be traced back to the Oort Cloud, a dusty mass in the far reaches of the universe. The comet was sling-shotted out of the Oort Cloud — will pass through our solar system over the next few months, and then will very likely disappear back into space never to be seen again. But the business of predicting comets brightness is a tricky one. After all, they are somewhat rare — and we are not excellent at predicting these types of arguably naturally unpredictable events.

All hope is not lost, however. ISON is currently passing very close to Mars, and NASA is preparing to take new imagery of the comet as it does so. Additionally, the comet has crossed the “Frost line” — a fancy term used to describe the period when the comet begins to heat up in our solar system, and a dust cloud appears as the comet begins to burn up.

The moment of truth, however, awaits Comet ISON when it passes near the sun on Thanksgiving Day this year. It is then that we will know whether the comet will be burned up by the suns heat completely, be dissolved prior to that, or burn just the right amount — and put on a spectacular show in the night sky.

At the very least, Comet ISON will be visible with binoculars and telescopes through October and November 2013. But if all goes well (and we don’t yet know if it will), the suns heat could burn ISON just enough so that the comet appears bright in the night sky during November and December, with a terrific and colorful dust trail. It would truly be a sight to see for all of us. At this point, we can only hope. And wait.