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Comet ISON Releasing Carbon dioxide and Dust: NASA

Jul 24, 2013 08:39 AM EDT
Comet ISON
These images from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope of C/2012 S1 (Comet ISON) were taken on June 13, when ISON was 310 million miles (about 500 million kilometers) from the sun. The images were taken with the telescope's infrared array camera at two different near-infrared wavelengths, 3.6 and 4.5 microns (the representational colors shown were selected to enhance visibility). The 3.6-micron image on the left shows a tail of fine rocky dust issuing from the comet and blown back by the pressure of sunlight as the comet speeds towards the sun (the tail points away from the sun). The image on the right side shows the 4.5-micron image with the 3.6-micron image information (dust) removed, and reveals a very different round structure -- the first detection of a neutral gas atmosphere surrounding ISON.
(Photo : Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHUAPL/UCF)

Comet ISON- The faint speck of dust that will become the "comet of century" is now emitting a massive amount of carbon dioxide and dust, NASA announced. The comet is expected to pass through the solar system later this year.

ISON or C/2012 S1 is a sungrazing comet that was discovered last year. Sungrazer comets pass very close to the sun's surface. The comet is expected to be visible to the naked eye in broad daylight in November 2013.

Now, images from Spitzer's Infrared Array Camera show that the "soda pop" comet is spewing carbon dioxide along with dust. The comet's tail is about 186,400 miles long. The comet is a small, dirty snowball about three miles in diameter. It is expected to pass within 724,000 miles of the sun on Nov. 28., provided it survives the journey. 

"We estimate ISON is emitting about 2.2 million pounds (1 million kilograms) of what is most likely carbon dioxide gas and about 120 million pounds (54.4 million kilograms) of dust every day," said Carey Lisse, leader of NASA's Comet ISON Observation Campaign and a senior research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

NASA said that that the new images show that the comet is heating-up and so is releasing dust and trapped gases within its icy cover. Carbon dioxide is the gas that is believed to power comets between Saturn and other asteroids.

 "Previous observations made by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and the Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission and Deep Impact spacecraft gave us only upper limits for any gas emission from ISON. Thanks to Spitzer, we now know for sure the comet's distant activity has been powered by gas," Lisse added in a news release.

The study of the comet gives an insight into the building blocks of the planets, NASA said. A more detailed analysis of the comet will be possible in August, when the comet reaches the orbit of Mars.

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