Is Comet ISON A Slacker? / Win Cash In Comet Photo Contest

Comet ISON and its growing tail seen through a 17″ tlelescope on October 27. Credit: Damian Peach

Comet ISON takes a beautiful picture as Damian Peach’s recent photo attests. Feast your eyes on that Mediterranean-hued coma and long tail. How I wish it looked like that in a telescope. While there’s still much time for the comet to develop into a hoped-for spectacle, it’s looking a little anemic to date. ISON presently glows around magnitude 10 with a brighter false-nucleus (that’s the bright spot in the comet’s head inside of which is the actual comet) and a pretty but faint streak of a tail.

Once the crescent moon disappears from the morning sky later this week, views of the comet will improve. I’ll prepare a chart that telescope owners can use later this week to find it.

Another view of Comet ISON taken with a 16″ telescope on the morning of Oct. 26. Credit: John Chumack

Unlike some other comets, which become more active and brighten strongly as they approach the sun, most of ISON’s recent climb in brightness may have more to do with its increasing proximity to Earth and sun. This according to expert comet observer Alan Hale, co-discoverer of Comet Hale-Bopp. Hale calculated that if you subtract the brightness contribution from its decreasing distance, ISON has brightened by only a tenth of magnitude in the past two weeks. That’s piddling.

A closeup of Comet Hartley 2 taken during the EPOXI mission flyby in November 2010 shows multiple jets of ice, laden with dust, vaporizing under the heat of the sun. Credit: NASA

Comets are composed of about 80-90 percent water ice. Normally, once they cross the “frost line” just outside the orbit of Mars, that ice begins to vaporize with vigor under the solar heat lamp. Since ice carries sunlight-reflecting dust, we would expect a comet like ISON to shoot up in brightness both from vaporizing ice and decreasing distance.

ISON passed the frost line in late August. For whatever reason, it’s lagging, an indication it might be a very small comet. Then again, maybe its icy crust needs a little more time to sunder and blossom. I’ll end my speculations here, since we know all too well that comets are famous for their unpredictability.

Whatever ISON does, the National Science Foundation and Astronomy magazine want you to capture it on camera. The two organizations have teamed up to celebrate Comet ISON’s arrival by sponsoring a photography contest from October through mid-January. Both amateur and professional photographers worldwide can submit images online through January 15, 2014 in three categories:

* Cameras and tripods without the use of tracking or telescopes

* Piggyback cameras riding atop a telescope or motorized mount

* Through-the-scope images where the telescope acts as the camera’s lens

The National Science Foundation and Astronomy magazine are sponsoring a Comet ISON photo contest. Click image for details. Credit: NSF

The prizes will easily take care of your car payments for a few months. First prize in each category is $2,500. Second prize is $1,000. In addition to the six prize winners, Web site visitors will choose an additional “People’s Choice” award worth $1,500. Winners will be notified before the public announcement is made in April 2014. Winning images will appear in print in Astronomy magazine and online at,, and on the NSF Web site.

12 Responses

  1. Dominik


    sure looks bad reguarding comet ISON.
    I just hope ISON doesn’t show its beauty simply because, either its ingredients consists of substances that have a greater molecular mass than normal comets, or the crust is still deep frozen. Maybe it even has an exceptionally bright surface and so reflects most of the sunlight.
    Maybe saving its ice now might give ISON a better chance to survive the sun.
    However, I hope it all turns out well. I couldn’t see Hale-Bopp, ISON would be the first comet that I see in my life 🙂

    1. astrobob

      Well just remember – comets can be very unpredictable. Even it if breaks up as it rounds the sun, we’re still likely to see a longish tail. If it doesn’t break up, it will be a pretty sight.

  2. Good thing coming from Astronomy magazine. I think they have been trying to redeem themselves towards comet observers since their unfortunate blunder of “missing” comet C/1996 B2 Hyakutake that was discovered only 60 days before passing 0.1 a.u. from Earth in March 1996. Their writing to publishing delay is (or was) about 3 months back then so their 1st mention of this incredible comet came 1 month “after” perigee. I’ve been biased towards “S & T ever since.

  3. Edward M. Boll

    9.7 on October 16. I thought that it would be brighter than 9 by now. A magnitude of 10 to me tells me that our window for observing will be smaller. But, there still is a potential for a very high negative magnitude 1 month from today.

    1. astrobob

      It really is Edward. Looks like naked eye by mid-late Nov. as it now looks. Unfortunately we’re starting to get our bad weather spells.

  4. Hi Bob,

    Howdy, and good day to you Bob. As usual , excellent and educational Info from your site. Just got back from a trip to Holiday trip to China. A well needed Break just before ISON Peaks. Went out this morning to have a look , it was still barely visible in my 20×70 Binoculars. I hope ISON reserved the best a week or two before Perihelion and Survive its way around the Sun ( Finger crossed ) …Ha,Ha !! The publicity surrounding this Comet is now at its peak here, and I am getting numerous calls from students and the general public to organize a Star Party here. Well, I am still a little worried it may not live up to its expectation. Will see what happens the next few days !!

    Take Care and Thanks again for an excellent site here…!!

    Cheers !!….James Moh.

    1. astrobob

      Hi James,
      Thanks and welcome back! I also just returned from a trip – to Maui with my wife. Nice to see Canopus again. If ISON continues to dither you can always show them Lovejoy, Encke and C/2012 X1. Much to pick from!

  5. Edward M. Boll

    ISON is now about 15 percent of the distance to the Sun since discovery. If it is magnitude 10 today it has brightened 9 magnitudes. 15 percent of it’s present distance would take us to Nov. 26. If it brightens another 9 magnitudes this would put it at magnitude 1, 2 days before perihelion.

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