Will Comet ISON light up the night sky in late 2013?

Is this hunk of ice destined to be one of the ‘Great Comets’?

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Will Comet ISON light up the night sky in late 2013?
Comet ISON will be at its closest point to the Sun in November 2013. Image: Remanzacco Observatory

[Update 21 Nov 2013: Check out our more recent post here giving you tips and tricks to see Comet ISON]

Comet ISON, whose scientific designation is Comet C/2012 S1, was discovered by astronomers Vitali Nevski from Vitebsk, Belarus and Artyom Novichonok from Kondopoga, Russia from images they obtained last year using a 16-inch Santel reflector. The telescope is part of the International Scientific Optical Network whose abbreviation ISON is now the comet’s common name. At the time, the comet was found to be glowing at a very dim 19 magnitudes.

Just how brightly Comet ISON will shine this year is currently up for debate between planetary scientists and comet-watchers. However, the general consensus is that ISON will hopefully be the brightest comet anyone alive has ever seen. Current predictions suggest that it will skim the Sun, approaching it at a distance within 1.1 million miles at the end of November 2013. It is here that ISON could reach, or even exceed, the brightness of the full Moon meaning that it will be visible to the naked eye quite easily.

However, when the comet is at its closest point to the Sun, and at its brightest, it is possible that we will not be able to see it because its closeness to the Sun could mean that it is washed out by our daytime star’s glare.

Heading north almost immediately after it reaches its closest approach to the Sun, Comet ISON will start to dim. However, it could still be as bright as Venus and will be showing off a spectacular tail. Observers all over the world will be able to see ISON with everyone in the Northern Hemisphere getting a great view in the run-up to Christmas and into January passing directly over the north pole. In January 2014, astronomers predict that the comet will approach to within 37.2 million miles of Earth.

While Comet ISON has been dubbed the ‘Comet of the Century’, astronomers point out that comets are notoriously unpredictable and while most evidence points to a spectacular show, ISON could just fizzle out or even break up!

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