What you need to know about comet ISON

In a composite image provided by NASA, Comet ISON nears the sun in an image captured at 10:51 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Thursday. This image from ESA/NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory shows the solar atmosphere, the corona. Scientists are studying spacecraft images to find out whether a small part ISON survived its close encounter with the sun.

A few bright streaks of the former Comet ISON might be visible any day now, over the Lowcountry before sunrise. Here’s what you need to know:



YES, VIRGINIA,

We might still have a Christmas comet to be seen with the naked eye.

“The Earth is getting closer to it every day. We’ll be half the distance to it by Christmas than we are now, and that should make it four times brighter,” said astronomer Terry Richardson of the College of Charleston.



WHAT IS ISON?

A four-and-a-half-billion year old chunk of ice, rock and space dust that has been making its way to the edge of the solar system, opening up the possibility of a first naked-eye sighting of a comet in years. It’s named for the International Scientific Optical Network, whose astronomers were the first to spot it, through a telescope in Kislovodsk, Russia .



WHERE TO LOOK

Checking a compass wouldn’t hurt. Over the next few days the comet will rise about 17 degrees south of due east, astronomer Terry Richardson said. Sunday morning it rises about 30 minutes before the sun. But it’s moving away from the sun quickly so that by Tuesday morning it will rise almost an hour beforehand, and that might be the first chance to see it easily. Each day it will be higher in a dark morning sky. It still may require binoculars to see it.



WHAT HAPPENED

The comet smashed into the blaze of the sun on Thanksgiving Day, a ride that astronomers roundly expected to be its last, and very nearly was. But some material evidently made its way through, NASA reported Friday. What’s left is likely to be pretty faint. But ISON still has a tail, and the comet has been one surprise after another for astronomers. No one is sure what to expect now.



DON’T WAIT ’TIL DARK

The comet won’t show up at sunset for another week or so, if it does at all. It’s not likely to be very visible then and will set shortly after the sun does. ISON will be far more viewable in the relatively darker morning sky.

By the week before Christmas the comet should become even more visible as it separates farther from the sun.



OORTBALL

Comets, sometimes tagged “dirty snowballs,” are debris from the formation of stars and planets billions of years ago. Comets we see start out as big chunks of rock and ice floating in the Oort Cloud, a mess of that debris in space. When the gravity from a body like the sun pulls strong enough, large chunks of ice are drawn from the cloud to the sun. The closer they get the more they melt, spewing a gas trail the becomes the famous tail of a comet.



CHRISTMAS COMET

Just one of any number of theories about the Star of Bethlehem — the light said to have guided the Magi to the birth of Jesus — could have been a comet.

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