Death of Comet ISON Captured by NASA’s STEREO Spacecraft. Or Maybe Not!

By Tom Yulsman | November 28, 2013 6:13 pm

Long live ISON!

NASA STEREO Comet ISON

Comet Ison streaks toward the sun and emerges from its encounter as not much more than a ball of dust. (Source: NASA/STEREO)

|Update 10:30 a.m. 11/29/13: As I noted in my first update immediately below, Comet ISON seems to be showing new signs of life. I’m now working on a new post about that. I should be able to publish it by the end of the day, so please check back. In the meantime, a mea culpa: On its closest approach to the sun, ISON really did not seem to have a pulse — but I should have waited before declaring it dead. Although scientists were indeed speaking as if it had met its demise, I should have waited for a more definitive assessment.

There is also one other intriguing possibility: Comet ISON may be alive and dead at the same time. For an explanation of that, please come back later today. In the meantime, I’ve changed the headline on this story. (It had read “Death of Comet ISON Captured by NASA’s STEREO Spacecraft.”) |

|Update 9:30 p.m. 11/28/13: My headline might have been premature! After scientists were declaring ISON dead there’s some fleeting evidence that maybe, just possibly, a small, intact chunk of ISON’S nucleus survived. Read about it in Karl Battam’s “Schrödinger’s Comet” (!!) blog post at the Comet Ison Observing Campaign web site. (Maybe it really is dead and alive at the same time! |

This morning, hope was fading as fast as Comet ISON’s glow itself — and whatever sliver remained was dashed when it became clear that the traveller from at least 400 billion miles away had disintegrated on its close approach to the sun.

You can see it happen in the animation above, consisting of images from NASA’s STEREO-A spacecraft. When you watch it, don’t blink. ISON streaks toward the sun, circles around it, and emerges as not much more than a ghost of its former self.

The comet’s nucleus was probably no more than a mile across as it made its fateful approach, and the intense heat of the sun evidently melted all of the ice that had served as a kind of mortar to hold the more solid stuff together. As it whipped around the sun, ISON seems to have been reduced to a hurtling cloud of debris.

Here’s a stunningly beautiful image of ISON just as it appears to be blinking out:

SOHO Comet ISON

NASA’s SOHO spacecraft captured this image of Comet ISON blinking out as it neared the sun. The disk of the sun is blocked so its glare will not obscure the much fainter comet. The image was posted online by Czech comet watcher Jakub Cerny.

Comet Ison, we hardly knew you! But I suspect you taught scientists a thing or two in the past few days — the subject of a future post here at ImaGeo.

  • Sara Louise Dudley

    iv found myself upon your blog as I seen something around 10pm from south towards North East of me and I have never seen anything like it before it had a glow of red to pink front with a bright white tail and moved so fast it seemed close or just big I’m not sure could it have been ison? I’m in Chester

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ImaGeo

ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.

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