Often billed as the Comet of the Century, ISON gave a NASA spacecraft quite the show last week when the Spitzer Space Telescope captured the comet’s tail.
The infrared telescope captured dust and carbon dioxide gas streaming from Comet ISON. The resulting tail is about 186,400 miles long, according to researchers.
The comet is expected to make its way through the inner solar system later this year, reports Space.com. But until it arrives, scientists are trying to get every glimpse of the massive celestial object as they can.
Carey Lisse, leader of NASA’s Comet ISON Observation Campaign, stated of the most recent photos, “We estimate ISON is emitting about 2.2 million pounds of what is most likely carbon dioxide gas and about 120 million pounds of dust every day.”
Lisse added that NASA has made several observations of the Comet of the Century using the Hubble Space Telescope and the Swift Gamma-Ray Burts Mission and Deep Impact spacecraft. However, they “gave us only upper limits for any gas emission from ISON.”
However, thanks to the Spitzer Space Telescope, Liss explained, “We now know for sure the comet’s distant activity has been powered by gas.” Comet ISON is currently 312 million miles from the sun, or about 3.35 times farther than the Earth is from the sun, notes PR Newswire.
The massive comet is about three miles wide and is expected to come very close to the sun this November. At just 724,000 miles from the sun’s surface, ISON could blaze up dramatically. Some scientists believe the comet could even shine as bright as the full moon in the sky.
But there’s no guarantee the space object will end up being the comet of the century. Instead, there is potential for the comet to break apart as it gets close to the sun. Several other candidates for the title have done so over the years. And it’s even more difficult to predict ISON’s path and future, because it’s making its first-ever trip to the inner solar system.
The comet hails from the distant Oort Cloud, a huge gathering of comets located between 600 billion and six trillion miles from the sun. It is expected the the potential comet of the century will provide even better photo opportunities as it works its way closer to the sun.
[Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHUAPL/UCF]