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NASA Releases Data On Brightest Comet Seen In 50 Years (VIDEO)

Mar 29, 2013 02:26 PM EDT

Astronomers at NASA have gathered data on what may be one of the most spectacular comets stargazers have seen in decades thanks to observations from the space agency's Swift satellite.

The NASA report states the comet C/2012 S1, also referred to as ISON, is one of the brightest comets astronomers have set their eyes on in the last five decades, and the images acquired over the last two months from Swift's Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope (UVOT) have given researchers initial estimates on the comet's water and dust production, as well as data on the size of the speeding comet's icy nucleus.

"Comet ISON has the potential to be among the brightest comets of the last 50 years, which gives us a rare opportunity to observe its changes in great detail and over an extended period," said Lead Investigator Dennis Bodewits, an astronomer at University of Maryland at College Park.

Astronomers are particularly interested in ISON because it has come scorchingly close to the Sun, which has made it brighter because the heat from the star sublimated the comet's icy core, releasing dust in the process that reflects sunlight and glows brilliantly.

January observations by the UVOT indicated that the comet was shedding about 112,000 pounds of dust every minute. At the time it was also producing about 130 pounds of water every minute.

"The mismatch we detect between the amount of dust and water produced tells us that ISON's water sublimation is not yet powering its jets because the comet is still too far from the sun," Bodewits said. "Other more volatile materials, such as carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide ice, evaporate at greater distances and are now fueling ISON's activity."

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