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Getting Closer

September 6, 2013

A comet that may blaze across the night sky during the holiday season is still lurking in the darkness. Even so, planetary scientists are already turning their instruments toward it. They hope to see how the comet changes as it races toward the Sun over the next couple of months.

An early good look at Comet ISON will come from a balloon-borne telescope that’s scheduled for launch this month from New Mexico. Known as Balloon Rapid Response for ISON, it’s the first balloon mission to study a comet, and the first to study any object in the solar system in half a century. It’ll ascend to an altitude of 20 miles or higher, and spend several hours observing the comet before dropping back to Earth.

Comet ISON comes from the Oort Cloud — a vast shell of icy bodies that extends a light-year from the Sun. These bodies are leftover “building blocks” from the birth of the solar system, so they contain the same mixture of materials that gave birth to Earth and the other planets. Studying them will help scientists understand how our world took shape.

ISON will pass less than a million miles from the Sun on Thanksgiving. If it survives that fiery plunge, it could put on a beautiful display for several weeks.

Right now, it appears close to the planet Mars, which is in the east before dawn and looks like a moderately bright orange star. ISON is to its left or lower left. It’s so faint, though, that you need a telescope to see it — at least for now.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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