Stargazers all over the world are abuzz with excitement. That's because for the first time ever, comet ISON has started making its way through our inner solar system. While comets skirting by earth are nothing new, this one is being dubbed 'Comet of the Century', thanks to its orbit that takes it so close to the sun that it could result in an unprecedented cosmic scene, caused by the distinct bright tail created when the ice on the comet's body vaporizes.
This epic event is scheduled to take place on November 28th, when ISON will fly 730,000 miles (1.16 million kilometers) from the sun's surface. If everything goes well, experts believe it will shine brighter than a full moon at night. While the comet will only briefly be visible near the sun in broad daylight, its dusty tail stretching into the night sky could create a worldwide sensation. However, there is a big IF!
That's because this close up, the comet will be subjected to the sun's full wrath - A scorching 2,760°C temperature that is hot enough to melt rock, ice and metal. This, combined with the star's strong gravitational pull could theoretically break up or disintegrate the comet.
While most experts believe that ISON is strong enough to survive the ordeal, they are nevertheless urging fans to start scanning the skies for the already visible comet, prior to its close encounter with the sun. As is the case with all celestial objects, the best way to see ISON is from an area that is unobstructed by city lights. Also, while the comet can be seen with the naked eye, a telescope is recommended to see it in its full glory, complete with tails, streams and bumpers.
If ISON survives its Thanksgiving day encounter with the sun, it will continue to delight cosmic enthusiasts right through February, though it will get increasingly dim. The best part is that as it moves away from the sun the comet will start becoming visible at night, and as a special gift for all its fans, shine its brightest on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Discovered in September 2012 by amateur astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok, ISON was named after Russia's International Scientific Optical Network, the array of powerful telescopes that helped them spot the comet when it was still all the way out near Jupiter's orbit.
The last time a comet created this much excitement was in 1997, when Hale-Bopp zipped across - And it did not disappoint. Despite being much further away from the sun than ISON will be, it delighted stargazers for a record 18 months before finally fading away. Hopefully, ISON will be strong enough to survive the sun and live up to its expectations as 'Comet of the Century'.
Made primarily from ice along with dust, rocks and frozen gases, comets are often referred to as 'dirty snowballs' and are believed to be remnants from the formation of stars and planets, billions of years ago. The big chunks of rocks and ice are constantly floating around in something called the Oort Cloud. When gravity from a passing body like a star pulls at them, large chunks break off and head toward the sun. As they get closer to the hot star, some of the ice that makes up the comet starts to melt and transforms into a gaseous tail that we have all come to associate with these snowballs.
Resources: Space.com, dailymail.com, huffingtonpost.com