'Comet of the Century'? We'll soon find out

The Hubble telescope captured this picture of the comet ISON on April 10.

The comet ISON will make its closest pass to the sun on Nov. 28, and there's a good possibility a spectacular light show will follow.

Space scientists are fanatically tracking a recently discovered comet that is streaking toward the sun, waiting to see if it will live up to its hype as a possible "Comet of the Century."

Comet ISON began its journey about 10,000 years ago when it left our solar system and started its peril-fraught approach to the sun, according to NASA.

On Nov. 28, it will make its closest pass to the sun — within about 680,000 miles from the stellar surface, according to Zolt Levay, imaging team lead at NASA's Space Telescope Science Institute.

If the comet survives, it could emerge glowing as brightly as the moon, visible to the naked eye, creating a spectacular sky-watching show for us on Earth, NASA says. It could also break up into multiple smaller comets, each with its own bright nucleus and tail. Or it could totally disintegrate, and we won't see anything after it passes the sun, Levay told MSN News.

According to Space.com, ISON is set to cross a key mile-marker of sorts this month or next — the frost line, some 230 million to 280 million miles from the sun. At this juncture, the sun's radiation will start driving off more of ISON's water and make it appear brighter.

"Material will start to come off the comet and increase the size of its atmosphere, the stuff around it, which reflects a lot of the light," Levay told MSN News.

Levay was among several scientists taking part in a Google+ hangout on Wednesday to discuss the status of ISON.


The comet is set to fly by Mars in October and pass within the orbits of Earth, Venus and Mercury, in that order, in November en route to its rendezvous with the sun.

Tidal forces and solar radiation have been known to destroy comets, so the likelihood of a sky show depends heavily on whether ISON emerges relatively unscathed.

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According to Space.com: "If the sun is merciful to ISON when it whips around the star on Nov. 28 (Thanksgiving Day), the comet could light up the sky for weeks. In the Northern Hemisphere, it could be visible in the morning near the east-southeast horizon in early December. Later in the month, and into early January, the comet could be visible all night, according to NASA."

This could mean spectacular Northern Hemisphere light shows to follow.

A pair of Russian amateur astronomers, Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok, found the comet in September. ISON is named after the International Scientific Optical Network, a group of observatories organized to detect and track objects in space.

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope snapped photos of ISON in April, including a new image released this week.


Some have called ISON the "Comet of the Century," but several scientists say that title may be premature.

The last "Comet of the Century," the much-hyped Kohoutek, miserably failed to live up to its promise of a dazzling celestial display in 1973.

Related: NASA plans major Saturn photo op

While ISOS holds great promise, comets are notoriously unpredictable.

"The funny thing is there are usually multiple 'comets of century.' We can't make that determination until after we see it and after a few other comets have gone by," Levay said.

Even if ISON fizzles, knowledge gained from tracking the celestial body's plight could yield more insight into the makeup of the early solar system, according to Space.com.


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