Feeds

LOOK UP! Comet ISON could EXPLODE in our skies – astronomers

Promised piece of night-sky shininess may not last, we're warned

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Comet ISON could break up into itty-bitty pieces long before it gets closer to the Sun, selfishly denying us all the opportunity to see it shine brightly in the night sky.

The comet is currently visible in the predawn sky, but it may not be there for long if astroboffins from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research and the Astronomical Institute at Ludwig Maximilian University are right.

In a post on the International Astronomical Union's Comets and Asteroids Facebook page, the scientists reported spotting "wings" coming from the comet, which may suggest that the nucleus has broken up.

"The coma wings suggest the presence of two or more sub-nuclei with individual expanding atmospheres in the overall cometary coma and may indicate nucleus splitting in the comet," they said.

Amateur astronomer Waldemar Skorupa recorded this image from Kahler Asten, in Germany, on November 16, 2013. Credit: Waldemar Skorupa (Kahler Asten, Germany), via spaceweather.com

Amateur astronomer Waldemar Skorupa's shot of ISON on 16 November.

Credit: Waldemar Skorupa (Kahler Asten, Germany), via spaceweather.com

Astrophysicist Karl Battams, blogging on NASA's Comet ISON Observing Campaign, agreed that the wings could be a sign of fragmentation, but said there were other possibilities as well.

Battams reckons that the wings' symmetrical appearance counts against the fragmentation theory, since comet nucleus breakup is usually an asymmetrical event. He also pointed out that the wings could be dust emission due to jets in ISON's nucleus that had already been spotted or just solar wind ion tail structures caused by ISON running into some high solar winds, in a coronal mass ejection for example.

"If the comet has fragmented, we should see some dramatic changes in the next few days," he said. "Typically we expect a large increase in brightness followed then by a dramatic decrease in the comet's brightness in these situations.

"If instead jets are the cause, we expect the 'wings' to persist and grow. If the behaviour is driven by the solar wind then we should see continual changes as the solar wind changes."

Comet ISON will reach perihelion, its closest brush with the Sun, in less than two weeks and boffins are unsure whether it will survive its fiery pass just 720,000 miles (1.16 million km) from the surface. The comet will heat up to 2,760°C, but it's still possible for it to survive if it gets that far.

If it does survive, it will be at its brightest in the sky in early December, when some experts reckon it could be quite spectacular. ®

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

More from The Register

next story
LIFE, JIM? Comet probot lander found 'ORGANICS' on far-off iceball
That's it for God, then – if Comet 67P has got complex molecules
Rosetta probot drilling DENIED: Philae has its 'LEG in the AIR'
NOT best position for scientific fulfillment
'Yes, yes... YES!' Philae lands on COMET 67P
Plucky probot aces landing on high-speed space rock - emotional scenes in Darmstadt
HUMAN DNA 'will be FOUND ON MOON' – rocking boffin Brian Cox
Crowdfund plan to stimulate Blighty's space programme
THERE it is! Philae comet lander FOUND in EXISTING Rosetta PICS
Crumb? Pixel? ALIEN? Better, it's a comet-catcher!
SEX BEAST SEALS may be egging each other on to ATTACK PENGUINS
Boffin: 'I think the behaviour is increasing in frequency'
Post-pub nosh neckfiller: The MIGHTY Scotch egg
Off to the boozer? This delicacy might help mitigate the effects
prev story

Whitepapers

Choosing cloud Backup services
Demystify how you can address your data protection needs in your small- to medium-sized business and select the best online backup service to meet your needs.
Getting started with customer-focused identity management
Learn why identity is a fundamental requirement to digital growth, and how without it there is no way to identify and engage customers in a meaningful way.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Simplify SSL certificate management across the enterprise
Simple steps to take control of SSL across the enterprise, and recommendations for a management platform for full visibility and single-point of control for these Certificates.
Saudi Petroleum chooses Tegile storage solution
A storage solution that addresses company growth and performance for business-critical applications of caseware archive and search along with other key operational systems.