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Sungrazer Comet ISON Captured by Hubble Telescope Photo as it Speeds Towards Earth

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Jul 29, 2013 01:27 AM EDT
Comet ISON
Hubble captures awesome image of Comet ISON as it makes its way towards the sun
(Photo : NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team)

Comet ISON, the fast approaching comet which may be visible to the naked eye later this year, is the subject of a great photo op taken by the Hubble telescope.

ISON is a clearly visible comet with a long tail in the image which was carefully weaved together by layering five images from the Hubble telescope taken on April 30.

All five images were captured by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 UVIS instrument, researchers said. Three exposures were made with a filter that transmits yellow and green light (represented as blue in the image), while two used a filter that lets in red and some near-infrared light.

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"The result is part science, part art," Josh Sokol of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., which operates Hubble, wrote in a blog post last week. "It's a simulation of what our eyes, with their ability to dynamically adjust to brighter and fainter objects, would see if we could look up at the heavens with the resolution of Hubble."

Comet ISON is currently gliding towards a close encounter with the sun on Nov. 28, when it will skim just 724,000 miles (1.16 million kilometers) above the solar surface. When it nears the sun, comet ISON may actually shine brighter than the sun, scientists predict.

"Comet ISON is a sungrazer," explains Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab. "The orbit of the comet will bring it very close to the sun, which we know can be a spectacular thing."

Russian astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok found the comet in Sept. 2012. It bears the name of their night-sky survey program, the International Scientific Optical Network.

Some media outlets have started calling ISON the "Comet of the Century," but Don Yeomans of NASA Near-Earth Object Program thinks that's premature.

"I'm old enough to remember the last 'Comet of the Century'," he says. In 1973, a distant comet named Kohoutek looked like it would put on a great show, much like ISON. The actual apparition was such a let-down that Johnny Carson made jokes about it on the Tonight Show. "It fizzled," says Yeomans. "Comets are notoriously unpredictable."

The video below explains what makes a sungrazer comet:

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