Yes, I said hexagon. If you haven’t heard, our solar system’s second-largest planet has another curious feature besides its sprawling rings; it’s also in possession of an uncannily geometric six-sided jet stream encircling its north pole — at the heart of which lies a churning hurricane-like vortex over 1,800 miles wide. This hexagon has been known about since the days of Voyager, and now NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has presented us with the highest-resolution look yet at this odd atmospheric phenomenon.
Yesterday sure was interesting. As the astronomical world, from scientists to journalists to enthusiasts alike, watched online in near real time as ISON came within its closest pass of the Sun — in literally ever — the comet, having spent the previous several hours brightening steadily, suddenly went dim as it traveled deep into the Sun’s outer corona. It appeared that it had fallen apart, disintegrating* into a smear of bright particles just as it began to round the Sun. Even as astronomers looked to spot a sungrazing ISON in several of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory’s imaging fields, nothing was to be found, leading many to pronounce the billion-year-old icy visitor from the Oort Cloud dead on arrival.
But then, just as the Twitterverse was lamenting the loss of this year’s most famous comet, something reappeared… and even now, a full day later, they’re still not quite sure what.
Unless you’ve been living in the Oort Cloud you’ve probably heard about the current travels of comet C/2012 S1 (aka ISON) through the inner solar system. Although this soon-to-be “sungrazing” comet was first spotted by astronomers Vitali Nevski (from Belarus) and Artyom Novichonok (Russia) on Sept. 21, 2012, it’s actually been on its way toward the Sun for much, much longer — possibly for the past several million years or so. But on November 28 at 1:38 p.m. EST, as many Americans are sitting down for their Thanksgiving Day dinners here in the U.S., ISON will make its closest pass around the Sun (called perihelion) and, while you won’t be able to see it in the sky at that point (it’s much too close to the Sun right now) our many eyes in the sky will be watching.
There’s been a lot of misinformation passed around the ‘net recently regarding ISON (as seems to be de rigueur whenever something astronomical is occurring) and I can’t stress enough that there’s no reason to be concerned about this comet’s visit. If anything, ISON should be the one worried — there’s still a chance that it won’t survive perihelion intact! In fact, some reports are suggesting that it already has broken up (which as yet has not been confirmed). So to answer some of the most common questions people have been asking about ISON, NASA has shared some video interviews with experts on the subject. Watch them below:
While many skywatchers, scientists, and astronomy enthusiasts around the world wait to see if comet ISON survives its perihelion — that is, its closest pass by the Sun — on Nov. 28, the MESSENGER spacecraft has captured an image of the incoming comet from its position in orbit around Mercury!
The image above, shared today on the MESSENGER website, shows ISON from a distance of 22.5 million miles, and just over 42 million miles from the Sun. At perihelion ISON will come within a scant 730,000 miles of the Sun. Whether or not it survives its Thanksgiving Day encounter has yet to be seen.
And you will want one! (Trust me on this.)
Produced by Starry Messenger Press in conjunction with The Planetary Society, the 2014 Year in Space calendar is (like its 2013 version) a gorgeous 16″ x 22″ (40.5 cm x 56 cm) work of art filled with over 120 images of space exploration and hundreds upon hundreds of bits of information about everything space. Sure it tells you the date like any other calendar, but no other calendar I know of gives you so much great information about astronomical objects, scientists and astronauts, worlds of our solar system, and daily space exploration history. If you love space then this is the perfect gift for yourself and any other space fans you may know. (Or even if they’re not space fans… yet!)
And, because Lights in the Dark has your back (and its illustrious author is mentioned on the inside front cover!) you can get a discount by mentioning that you saw it on the internet. Order details are below:
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If you thought tails were just for comets and cats, this asteroid is about to prove you wrong.
On August 27 astronomers spotted an unusually fuzzy looking object in survey images taken with the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii. The multiple tails were discovered in Hubble images taken on September 10, 2013. When Hubble returned to the asteroid two weeks later, its appearance had totally changed — it looked as if the entire structure had swung around!
While this object is on an asteroid-like orbit, it looks like a comet, and is sending out tails of dust into space. Because nothing like this has ever been seen before, astronomers are scratching their heads to find an adequate explanation for its mysterious appearance.
Launched on its historic voyage to Jupiter on October 18, 1989, NASA’s Galileo spacecraft also got some good looks at several members of our solar system before it reached the giant planet — and one of them was the 12-mile-long asteroid Gaspra, of which it made its closest pass on October 29, 1991.
The image above is a high resolution enhanced-color mosaic of Gaspra made from images Galileo acquired from about 3,300 miles away. Ten minutes later Galileo passed Gaspra at 995 miles — it was the first close pass of an asteroid by a manmade spacecraft!