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Comet ISON — a three-mile wide ball of frozen gas, water and dust — will pass through the sun’s outer atmosphere on Thursday.
“The question is, ‘What’s going to happen? The answer is, ‘Nobody knows,'” says Shawn Cruzen, executive director of CSU’s Coca-Cola Space Science Center. “This thing could break up and fall into the sun. and we won’t see another thing from it. Or, it could survive the trip through the outer atmosphere of the sun, and enough material could melt off it, that when it comes back around the sun, and it becomes visible in our nighttime sky again, it might absolutely be gigantic.”
Cruzen, a professor in CSU’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences, said there is an array of options beyond those scenarios. ISON might come around the sun’s atmosphere with enough material that people can see it in their backyards with binoculars, small telescopes or similar devices. Sightings already have been reported on its way toward the sun.
“We got one shot of it with our new telescope,” Cruzen said. “No one really knows what’s going to happen with ISON when it comes back around. That first or second week of December is really going to be an interesting time to see what ISON does.”
A Columbus State University student working as an intern with NASA is being credited with one of the most widely viewed photos of Comet ISON taken so far. Cameron McCarty, an astrophysics and planetary geology major at CSU, captured the image while working with the Meteoroids Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
That office is tracking Comet ISON as it approaches the sun and monitoring the way in which it’s shedding material. NASA’s Comet ISON page, at http://www.nasa.gov/cometison/, has prominently displayed an image of the famous comet that McCarty took using NASA’s 20-inch telescope in New Mexico.
McCarty’s Comet ISON images represent the second time in the past seven months his work has been featured on a major NASA website. His image of a May 10 solar eclipse, taken in Australia as part of a webcast expedition organized by CSU’s space science center, was featured then as NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day at http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap130511.html.
“We are truly proud of Cameron for his hard work and accomplishments,” Cruzen said. “He is a talented astronomer with a very bright future. His experiences also demonstrate what CSU (Earth and Space Sciences) students are capable of achieving.”
Comet ISON’s progress can be monitored online at http://spaceweather.com. If it survives, astronomers believe it will be visible during the first or second week of December in the western nighttime sky, just after sunset.
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Photo: NASA photo of Comet ISON taken by CSU student Cameron McCarty.