Comet ISON – A Final Goodbye or See Ya Later (Waaaay Later)?

UPDATE 12/4/13: Well, the human fangirl side of me is disappointed to announce that as of yesterday, NASA officially declared Comet ISON dead. But, the scientist in me is excited that there is so much data to pore over from the breakup of this comet very near the sun. With so many instruments following this comet, we have more capability now more than ever to view the makeup of this ancient comet, where it came from, and maybe will teach us more about comets in general. What a fascinating little comet, and even though I won’t be able to watch it selfishly in my night sky, I still feel very lucky to have been around to witness its demise. 

Right now, there is a comet well on its way to the sun. Will it survive its journey, which has been millions of years in the making? And if it does, will we ever see it again?

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Astronomers have been tracking comet ISON for quite a while now and many had predicted it would be one of the brightest observed comets for many years. While we haven’t seen the expected brightness from ISON yet, that may change if it survives its trip around the Sun.

Comet ISON racing towards the sun (Extra bonus-- Comet Encke!)

Comet ISON racing towards the sun (Extra bonus– Comet Encke!)

 

We will find out this Thanksgiving. On a NASA audio press conference today, many astronomers were offering their “bets” as to whether comet ISON would survive, with many giving it a 30-40% chance of survival. This comet has been fascinating from a scientific standpoint – many scientists use the words “odd” and have said it has behaved quite strangely. Of course, that only piques scientific interest all the more.

It’s important to note at this point that you very likely won’t be able to see anything on Thanksgiving, what with the whole staring into the sun and all. I, for one, will be letting NASA’s instruments do the work for me. There are some great resources for watching Comet ISON online, including from NASA and the Bad Astronomer.

IF it survives — again, this is the big IF — it is expected to be visible again in the Northern Hemisphere around the 1st or 2nd week of December. Even more awesome – it will be visible during sunrise AND sunset (before it became too close to the Sun, it’s only been visible at sunrise). UPDATED: There is some confusion as to this point that was brought up during the press conference. I’ll continue to keep you updated.

Comets don’t come around very often. This is a great opportunity to gather your kids, friends, family, etc. and to use all the tools we have available to watch one of the best shows our universe has to offer. I know I’ll be watching–how about you?

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Voyager, Truly Going Where No Man(Made Object) Has Been Before **Updated 12-3-12

Where were you on September 5, 1977? I was relaxing at home, enjoying the day, oblivious to the awesomeness that was the launch of the Voyager 1 spacecraft. My space fan-girl-ness had not started yet. . .I was only 6 months old.

Even if I were old enough to remember that day, I don’t know if I would appreciate the Voyager 1 missions as much as I do now. But first, let’s talk about exactly what the Voyager spacecrafts are and their missions.

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Both Voyager missions launched around the same time for a planned 2-year mission. According to NASA, their main mission was to conduct close-up studies of Jupiter and Saturn, Saturn’s sings, and the larger moons of both planets.

But the scientists and engineers at NASA built both Voyagers to last 5 years, so after its initial mission was complete, there was a wonderful opportunity for Voyagers to flyby Uranus and Neptune as well, along with their moons. By the time that was complete, Voyager 1 and 2 explored Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and 48 of their moons.

The science gleaned from the Voyager missions was incalculable. But one of the best parts about the Voyagers is that they’re still going more than 30 years later! Think back to technology in the 1970s and how it compares to today. Do you have anything built in the 1970s that still works. . .in space? Probably not.

So not only did these spacecraft give us information about the 4 outer planets (sorry Pluto) that we did not know before, but it is now embarking on a mission where even scientists are unsure of what to expect.

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This is the famous “Pale Blue Dot” picture referenced by Carl Sagan. That’s Earth, taken from Voyager 1 about 3.7 BILLION miles away, to the right side of the screen.

Space is big. Really big. Voyager 1 and 2 are traveling at about 35,000 mph, and they’re just now making it to the edge of our solar system. That may not seem like very far when you’re thinking about the size of the whole Milky Way galaxy, but how awesomely cool is it that two man-made objects are about to escape the solar system? Our solar system. Our home.

So how will we know when Voyager 1 has left the solar system. Unfortunately, there are no road signs to let us know. Voyager 1 has already crossed the heliosheath, which is the point where the sun’s solar wind slows down and interacts with interstellar space. We know this because Voyager 1 contains instruments that measure the speed of the solar wind.

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This is why I’m more excited about the Voyager missions now than I would have been when they were exploring the planets, even though that was supremely cool and awesome and taught us so much. We’re traveling farther than we’ve ever traveled, we won’t know we’re there until we’re already there, and we have no idea what’s ahead of us. I’m continually amazed at humans and what we can do. Science!

Updated 12/3/2012

We’re getting closer!