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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Drama Builds For Flyby Of Comet ‘ISON’

Comet ISON passed through Virgo earlier this month. (Aaron Kingery/NASA)

Comet ISON passed through Virgo earlier this month. (Aaron Kingery/NASA)

You could be in for a treat this week — if you wake up early and the skies are clear.

A comet named ISON should be visible through binoculars over the southeastern horizon.

Astronomy websites are hyping Ison’s passage as the best in more than a decade. But a lot depends on a close encounter with the sun next week.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Tom Banse of Northwest News Network explains.

Reporter

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

You could be in for a treat this week if you wake up early and the skies are clear. A comet named ISON should be visible through binoculars over the southeastern horizon. Astronomy websites are hyping ISON's passage as the best in more than a decade. But a lot depends on a close encounter with the sun next week. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Tom Banse at the Northwest News Network explains.

TOM BANSE, BYLINE: A nice, bright comet comes by about once per decade on average, says Chris Anderson. He's the observatory coordinator at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls. We're overdue because the last appearance of an easily visible comet over North America was Hale-Bopp in 1997. Anderson says Comet ISON shows promise as it dives toward our sun.

CHRIS ANDERSON: Comet ISON is a first-time comet. It's never been in the inner solar system before, which means it has a fresh and ready reserve of material to be boiled off.

BANSE: That gradual vaporizing of the comet is what makes it brighten and develop a nice tail. Anderson suggests slowly scanning with binoculars or even with the naked eye around an hour to 90 minutes before dawn. This week, Comet ISON can be spotted near Mercury and then Saturn low in the east-southeastern sky.

ANDERSON: So the comet is going to be morning object for quite a while now, and that's because it's moving towards the sun now. But it's going to swing very rapidly around the sun and kind of slingshot right back into the morning sky.

BANSE: The comet disappears next week when it passes behind the sun. Astronomers are unsure though whether Comet ISON will survive the close encounter. The intense heat and gravitational pull of the sun could break up what is basically a giant, dirty, flying snowball.

ANDERSON: And so we're all kind of crossing our fingers that the comet survives the passage. But, you know, even if it doesn't, that might produce a spectacular show. It just won't last very long. You might get a really great-looking comet for about a day or so, and then it could just disappear as fragments and never be seen again.

BANSE: If it does survive, Anderson says the comet might be hard to miss. Our December skies will be graced with a bright fuzzy object with a great streak of a tail sticking up from the horizon.

For HERE AND NOW, I'm Tom Banse in Olympia, Washington.

HOBSON: And if you get a good shot of the comet, let us know about it. We are on Twitter, @hereandnow, also on Facebook at hereandnowradio - facebook.com/hereandnowradio.

This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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