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Look Up! Comet ISON Starts Its Pass Around the Sun

It might not live up to its hype as the “Comet of the Century,” but Comet ISON could still light up the night sky this December.

Comet ISON — named after the Russian-based organization that discovered it in 2012 — was originally predicted by the astronomy community to possibly be as bright as the moon, giving it the title “Comet of the Century.” According to Dan Malerbo, program coordinator of the Buhl Planetarium, the three-mile wide comet has not brightened at its expected rate and now might not even survive it’s trip around the sun.

Comets are composed of ice and dirt and begin to break apart as they approach the sun. As the comet breaks up more and interacts with sunlight it brightens, and leaves a tail of gases behind it.

“There’s a good chance that if the comet survives the trip and then breaks up there could be a spectacular tail," Malerbo said. "Right now the tail is seven degrees, if the comet goes around the sun then breaks up, the tail could possibly stretch 45 degrees across the sky.”

ISON will pass around the sun on Thanksgiving Day, and if it is able to survive it will reach its peak brightness in early December. While the comet hasn’t matched the early predictions, it might still give amateur astronomers a chance to see a comet without the use of a telescope.

“As December progresses the comets going to rise higher in the sky and if it really brightens we’ll be able to see it in the evening sky through December until the first, second week of January when it will dim so hopefully it will brighten enough we can see it in the evening sky,” Malerbo said.  

Currently the comet can be seen just before sunrise in the east-southeastern sky along the horizon until November 26th. Due to the comet’s position in the sky, stargazers will have to get to as high and dark as a location as possible to see the comet hugging the horizon just before sunrise.