Is Comet ISON dying or thriving? There’s much discussion today among amateur and professional astronomers about a decline in its water and dust output and the comet’s reluctance to brighten significantly so close to the sun. I wonder what Miracle Max would have to say?
In one of my favorite movies, “The Princess Bride“, the character Miracle Max (played by Billy Crystal) examines an apparently dead man his friends hope he can bring back to life. Says Max:
“It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do.
Friend: “What’s that?
“Go through his clothes and look for loose change. ”
So maybe ISON is only mostly dead, which as Max points out, is very different from all dead. Like any comet approaching the sun so closely, ISON faces many obstacles: powerful particle winds and solar flares that can shred its tail and rattle the nucleus, tremendous heat and gravitational stress. What a poor 3-kilometer fluffy ball of ice and dust to do? Yes, it might be broken, but even if true, we could still see a spectacular tail after perihelion.
Pictures taken today by NASA’s STEREO Ahead space probe still show a bright comet head and longish tail. If the nucleus or comet core is cracking up these images are still too low a resolution to tell. On any old day, you wouldn’t know a crisis was brewing.
Now that the comet is too near the sun to see visually the only way we can study it from the ground in the coming days are with radio-dish-style telescopes sensitive to a slice of light between infrared and radio called the submillimeter range. This is where all the bad news is coming from.
Astronomers using the IRAM (Institute for Radio Astronomy in the Millimeter Range) telescope in Spain and James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii report rapid fading of molecular emission lines (light given off by sunlight-excited molecules sputtering off the nucleus) by a factor of 20 or more. This may indicate that the nucleus is now at best marginally active or that it no longer exists.
Them’s fightin’ words. I’m going to remain guardedly optimistic about ISON’s fate and hope for a little loose change. You can track the comet’s progress through the STEREO spacecraft’s eyes by following the link and instructions in yesterday’s blog. Here are some other great resources:
* Join NASA’s Fire vs. ISON Google+ Hangout LIVE Thursday Nov. 28 from noon-2:30 p.m. CST during perhelion. Listen to and ask questions of professional astronomers and scientist and fab blogger dude Phil Plait.
* Solar Dynamics Observatory views Comet ISON on Nov. 28. This website will display near real-time images and movies of the comet. Images should begin appearing sometime between 11:45 pm and noon CST. The solar space telescope will be specially offset from the sun to shoot the photos.
* Make your own ISON movie using near real-time photos at STEREO/Secchi site. Select the telescope (HI1is or COR-1), click Secchi A for observatory and then punch in the date.
*** Latest update: The International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center has just issued an updated predictions for Comet ISON. A maximum brightness of about first magnitude is forecast at perihelion with the comet entering the morning sky in early December no brighter than magnitude 3.5.