24 April 2013
THE MAGIC OF SCIENCE
In September 2012 astronomers first detected the approach of Comet ISON. The comet is expected to slingshot past the sun in November 2013 ~ it will pass so close that the gases and dust that boil off the comet's surface to form its tail will be visible to the naked eye for Earth-bound observers, perhaps spectacularly so.
Above is a Hubble image taken two weeks ago. At the time, the comet was 386 million miles from the sun, just inside the orbit of Jupiter. For a frame of reference, Earth orbits about 93 million miles from the sun. According to the NASA news release, "Even at that great distance the comet is already active as sunlight warms the surface and causes frozen gases to vaporize .... The comet's dusty atmosphere, or coma, is approximately 3,100 miles across, or 1.2 times the width of Australia. A dust tail extends more than 57,000 miles."
Here is a NASA video showing the path of the comet through the Solar System, with commentary explaining what to look for ~ the arrival of a meteor shower and cometary dust on Earth, and possible noctilucent clouds.
It is remarkable to me that just within my lifetime, space observation has graduated from mountaintop telescopic observatories to orbiting space telescopes, and that our ability to predict the timing and trajectory of a distant object has become so finely-tuned, honed in part by our experience with the complex physics and math of manned space flight and unmanned space probes to the sun, other planets and their moons, and beyond the solar system.
One hopes that we humans will survive and solve the problems we've created with climate change, overpopulation, pollution, and loss of wilderness/wildlife, so that we may continue our exploration of the next (not last) frontier ~ space.