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New Gemini Observatory Photos Show Comet ISON Speeding Towards the Sun

May 30, 2013 02:38 PM EDT

When the comet ISON enters the Sun's atmosphere this November the outcome is uncertain. Perhaps the million-degree temperatures of the corona will be the end of the speeding ball of ice and dust, or perhaps ISON will best the Icarus myth and emerge intact after flying so close the Sun. Either way, astronomers are interested.

A new series of images form Gemini Observatory shows the comet, formally named Comet C/2012 S1, speeding towards an uncomfortably close encounter with the Sun.

Data picked up by Gemini is providing astronomers with new information about ISON. The comet was only discovered in September 2012 by amateur Russian astronomers, its November rendezvous with the Sun will be its first and observers believe the star's heat will melt away some of the comet's exterior and reveal secrets inside.

"This comet is coming close to the Sun for the first time, and a 'volatile frosting' of ice may be coming off revealing a less active layer beneath. It is just now getting close enough to the Sun where water will erupt from the nucleus revealing ISON's inner secrets," Karen Meech, an astronomer University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy, said in a press statement.

On Nov. 28, ISON will make one of the closest passes ever recorded as a comet grazed the Sun, coming within 800,000 miles (1.3 million km) of the star's surface.

Meech said ISON "could still become spectacularly bright as it gets very close to the Sun." But she cautioned, "I'd be remiss, if I didn't add that it's still too early to predict what's going to happen with ISON since comets are notoriously unpredictable."

Whether ISON will survive grazing the Sun is up in the air, but if it does, it should be observable in the in the early morning sky in December and may become one of the brightest comets of the last 50 years, according to a press statement issued by the Gemini Observatory.

The new photos (above) released by the observatory show ISON between 455-360 million miles (730-580 million kilometers) from the Sun.

Each image in the series, taken with the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph at the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i, shows the comet in the far red part of the optical spectrum, which emphasizes the comet's dusty material already escaping from what astronomers describe as a "dirty snowball." The final image in the sequence, obtained in early May, consists of three images, including data from other parts of the optical spectrum, to produce a color composite image.

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