Both astronomers and the general public has gone abuzz over Comet ISON thanks to a prediction released last October by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) that stated that the comet could reach magnitude -11.6, or about as bright as the Full Moon. Additionally, besides being shadow-casting bright at night, the comet would be bright enough to easily be spotted during broad daylight. If Comet ISON were to become this bright, it would not be a first, but it would still be a rarity.
Needless to say, this would be the astronomical event of next year should the JPL's prediction come true.
Now, Comet ISON has been caught on a NASA camera, specifically by the agency's Deep Impact space probe at a distance of about 493 million miles. While the photo itself is nothing overly spectacular, it might as well go down in history as the baby picture of what could turn out to be the “comet of the century.”
According to space.com, one should start paying attention to the sky in October as Comet ISON nears Earth. By month;s end, it may be a naked eye object. However, the real show will start in November, when the comet makes its closest pass to the Sun, which will take place on November 28 when the comet will pass a mere (in astronomical terms) 732,000 miles from the Sun. Is is this close pass to the Sun, and the resultant melting of the comet that, according to optimistic estimates, push Comet ISON to magnitude -11, or about as bright as the Full Moon.
Okay, comet hunters, here are some key dates to consider:
October 14/15: Comet ISON will pass very near Regulus in Leo
November 18: Comet ISON will be within a degree of Spica
November 23: Comet ISON will pass very near a planetary pair of Mercury and Saturn
November 28: Comet ISON's closest approach to the Sun, hopefully it will survive and if it does, a spectacular tail (McNaught on steroids) is a very real possibility
Early December: Comet ISON will be visible on both evening and morning skies for mid-Northern observers arnd circumpolar for the far North
December 26: Comet ISOM makes its closest approach to Earth at 39.6 million miles
Even right at discovery, there was wide consensus that the comet would be visible to the naked eye. However, the consensus was not universal, which left the comet with room to be a spectacular cosmic sword like the Great Comet McNaught of 2006-7 or be a barely-visible, tiny, hazy patch of sky. Now, with more time elapsed since discovery, many are predicting that Comet ISON could be the cosmic sight of the decade.
Unfortunately, there's one hitch: are famously hard to predict.
Right now, space.com has an article (link at bottom) on Comet ISON and its potential to be another McNaught. Like what was already said here, this article reinforces the fact that comets, especially newly-discovered ones, are difficult to predict with any certainty, especially when they are so far away from Earth to the point they're not due for close approach until a year in the future.
For an intriguing afterthought, according to comet hunter John Bortle through Spaceweather.com (go to the September 25, 2012 archived page), Comet ISON's path closely parallels that of the great comet of 1680, which was bright enough to be seen during the day (just like McNaught).
The best news: for once, this will be a Northern Hemisphere comet!
In the end, thought, the only way we'll be able to know what Comet ISON will do is to wait and watch.
As the last part of the puzzle, be sure to keep an eye on the Cleveland weather forecast and, for hour-by-hour cloud predictions, the Cleveland Clear Sky Clock if you plan to head out and look at the stars this coming week. Live somewhere else? Find a clock and see if it will be clear near you.
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