Sunday, December 8, 2013

Comet ISON ~ The Perils of Sungrazing

Sadly, Comet ISON did not survive its close encounter with the sun on Thanksgiving Day. At the same time, following its journey live on twitter via existing instruments deployed to observe the sun was a roller coaster ride of celestial excitement. As it approached the sun, ISON brightened, then faded, as would be expected if the sun's heat and intense tidal forces destroyed the nucleus.

The Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) did not capture ISON at all at perihelion. The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) imaged ISON as a bright nuclues trailing a long coma and a smaller, narrower dust streamer, as it plunged towards the sun. Both SOHO and STEREO, which are not optimized for comet viewing, did not capture ISON during its closest approach to the sun. Once enough time had elapsed for ISON - if it survived - to have rounded the sun and reappear in SOHO images, there was no trace of the comet. Astronomers and the twittersphere reported on Comet ISON's fiery demise, some with sadness, some with humor, as evidenced in twitter comments such as the sun having roast comet for Thanksgiving.

Then, almost 24 hours post-perihelion, it became evident that *something* had rounded the sun, as ISON - or what was left of it - once again appeared in SOHO images. ISON looked much dimmer, more diffuse and with only the faintest of tails, indicating the nucleus had most likely broken up. As the cometary remains sped away from the sun, ISON's brightness faded. Comet ISON was no more - even as it left scientists with a treasure trove of cometary data that will advance our knowledge for years to come.

Below is an animation of SOHO images showing ISON's ill-fated encounter with the sun:

Perhaps ISON has a little different view on all of this:

Image credit:

See previous post below for a collection of beautiful images taken around the world as ISON passed closed to Earth on its way to perihelion in November.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Comet ISON - Six Days From Perihelion ~

I have been writing about Comet ISON news and sightings since last July. Six days away from perihelion on Thanksgiving Day, ISON is now hurtling towards its possibly fatal close encounter with the sun. If ISON does not disintegrate or plunge into the sun, we could be in for an amazing celestial spectacle in coming weeks.

Over the last few days, ISON has been visible to the naked eye and with binoculars in the early morning south-eastern skies, near Mercury and Spica, around 5:30 a.m. Over the next few days, the comet will be increasingly harder to spot, as ISON will be lower in the skies, washed out by twilight and a waxing moon. 

If ISON survives perihelion, here is where you will be able to see the comet for the first couple of weeks of December:

Image credit: Sky & Telescope

Following is a collection of ISON images taken around the world over the last few days. Enjoy!

Image credit: J.C. Casado

ISON over Tenerife, Canary Islands

Image credit: Parks Squyres

ISON imaged from Saddlebrooke, AZ

Image credit: Eric Cardoso

ISON over Portugal

Image credit: Kouji Yamamoto

ISON imaged in Oita, Japan

Image credit: Jon Talbot

ISON over Ocean Springs, MS

Image credit: G. Rhemann

ISON imaged from Namibia, Africa

 Image credit: Kouji Onishi

ISON as seen from Nagano, Japan

Image credit: Mike Broussard

ISON imaged from Maurice, LA

Image credit: Rogelio Andreo

ISON over the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Image credit:

See you on the flip side, ISON - Hopefully!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Exhilarating Maiden Launch of Falcon 9R from VAFB

For a month, from late August to late September this year, I tracked the launch preparations for SpaceX's maiden launch of its Falcon 9R rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, CA. I published updates and photos on this blog. After multiple delays throughout the month, the launch date was set for September 29, 2013, with a launch window of 9-11 a.m. PDT, and a second possible window 24 hours later.

The launch was breathtakingly beautiful and occurred as soon as the window opened, on a perfect Sunday morning, under brilliantly blue skies - which is rare for summer mornings at VAFB, where fog and low clouds are common.

This was SpaceX's first launch from its home state of California.

Here is a video with a sequence of photos we took as we watched Falcon 9R and Cassiope ascend into orbit. After the launch, we did some reconnaissance around the area and discovered a public viewing area that put us 5 miles closer to the launch pad.

This was our vantage point from Providence Landing Park in Lompoc, about 10 miles from the launch pad. The top of Falcon 9R is peeking out from behind the hill.

Close-up of the above view, just before launch.

View towards the launch pad on Launch Day Eve from Providence Landing Park.

We have lift-off! Falcon 9R soars skyward!

We missed filming the very first seconds of the launch, mainly because it took us by surprise. After all the delays, we expected to settle in for a wait. But Falcon 9R had other plans! The sound waves of the launch take 25 seconds to hit the camera.

Contrail from Stage 1 separation as Falcon 9R keeps climbing 

Eventually, the contrail started to look like a ferret jumping over a cloud! 
Also in this photo: Spot the crescent moon!

Weather and visibility the very next morning at the same time. 
The weather cooperated perfectly for Falcon 9R's maiden launch from VAFB!

Photo and video credit: Bradley Falk 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Amazing Videos ~ Grasshopper, Cows, Rocket Frog and Space Bat

I have previously written about SpaceX's Grasshopper Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing Vehicle. The most recent test takeoff / landing has left us with some truly jaw-dropping footage. In August of this year, Grasshopper reached an altitude of 820 ft (250 m) with a 328 ft (100 m) lateral divert maneuver, and then returns to the center of the launch pad. 

This technology is instrumental for the development of reusable rockets, both manned and unmanned, for landings and takeoffs on Earth and on off-planet destinations in our solar system. 

Video credit: SpaceX
Grasshopper test launch and landing with 100-meter lateral divert maneuver

Video credit: SpaceX

A different camera angle shows that we've also got cows! Launches and landings are rough on the wildlife and farm animals.   

Let's have a moment of silence for Rocket Frog:  
  Image credit: NASA Wallops

This unlucky frog became a viral video sensation after NASA's recent LADEE launch to lunar orbit.

 Let's not forget Space Bat: 

On March 15, 2009, Space Bat launched to instant fame on STS-119 Discovery from Kennedy Space Center.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Welcome Home, Soyuz Expedition 36!

Three humans returned safely from the International Space Station after a well practiced, yet fiery plunge through Earth's atmosphere, landing in a remote area near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013 (the evening of Tuesday, September 10 in the US).

 Photo credit: NASA

Flight Engineer Chris Cassidy (NASA), left, Commander Pavel Vinogradov (Roscosmos), center, and, Flight Engineer Alexander Misurkin (Roscosmos) just minutes after being helped out of the Soyuz TMA-08M capsule. The trio launched to the ISS on March 29 and spent five and a half months in space.

Photo credit: NASA

Fiery landing: Soyuz TMA-08M with its human passengers under the main parachute just as the soft landing engines fire to soften the capsule's impact. 

More images from a rare Soyuz night landing last November:

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Virgin Galactic & Germany's First Woman In Space

Early this morning, at California's Mojave Air and Space Port, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo "Enterprise" completed its second rocket-powered test flight, achieving its fastest hypersonic speed, a record altitude and fully flexing its unique feathering re-entry design.

During the 90-minute flight and landing maneuver, the WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane lifted SS2 to an altitude of 46,000 feet (14,000 m). Upon release, the two pilots on board SS2 rode a 20-second fiery burn as SS2 ascended to 69,000 feet (21,000 m), reaching a maximum speed of Mach 1.4. 

Congratulations to Richard Branson and the Virgin Galactic Team on a successful test flight!

Video credit: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic aims to start taking passengers to the edge of space in 2014. The company has sold tickets for these space tourist flights for years. Many of the ticket holders are celebrities who made national and international news for buying tickets that cost $200,000. But not all ticket holders are celebrities. Some just want to go to space. One of them is Sonja Rohde, who aims to become the first German woman in space. She is from Hagen / Nordrhein-Westfalen.

Photo credit: Sonja Rohde

Find out more about Sonja Rohde (English / German)

For my German-speaking readers, you can also read about Sonja Rohde as part of my interview with a German newspaper in 2011. Scroll down to the first newspaper page, middle column, lower half.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Io: Volcanoes, Sulfur, Flux Tubes

I came across a news item about Io today that I must have missed over the last couple of weeks, possibly because images have not yet been published. On August 15, using the Keck II telescope on Mauna Kea, astronomer and planetary scientist Dr. Imke de Pater of UC Berkeley spotted a massive volcanic eruption on Io, with a magnitude 100-500 times bigger than any eruptions on Earth in recent decades. According to de Pater, the eruption was “way bigger than anything in recorded history on Earth."

Eruptions of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull (yes, I'm a linguist and even I gave up on pronouncing it) in April 2010 deposited enough ash and micro particles in the atmosphere to wreak havoc with European air travel for weeks. At the same time, Io is only slightly larger than our own moon, yet it appears to produce volcanic eruptions that dwarf the ones on our planet. Amazingly, those eruptions on Io are happening right now. With over 400 active volcanoes, Io has long been known as "the most volcanically active body in our solar system". We will soon know more about what that actually means.

The most active volcano on Earth is Hawaii’s Kilauea. The recently observed eruption on Io released 17,000 times more energy than Kilauea typically produces. Data and imagery of the eruption on Io will be published in an upcoming paper. 

Image credit: NASA / JPL

While Io is one of the Galilean moons discovered in 1610, little was known about its features and characteristics until quite recently. In the 1970's, the Pioneer and Voyager probes sent back data during flybys that established Io's active volcanic nature and sulfurous atmosphere.

The image above is based on data collected by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in July 1999 and is NASA's highest resolution look at Io's surface. Unlike many of the bodies in our solar system, Io is free of impact craters, with a young, changing surface. The black pockmarks in the image indicate active volcanoes; darker areas indicate the presence of silicates. The whiter, reflective areas consist of sulfur dioxide ice or frost. 

Io is also a kind of giant space battery - generating electric current called the Io flux tube - as the moon's elliptical orbit crosses and interacts with Jupiter's magnetic field lines, in an eternal, delicate yet dramatic dance choreographed around the interplay of tidal forces and magnetic fields. Tidal forces acting on Io are so strong that crust displacements of 330 ft (100 m) have been observed.

Io is excessively hostile to Earthly life forms: Ionizing radiation levels on the surface average about 1 Sv/hr - a dose fatal to humans in a matter of hours. Still, Io is an undeniably beautiful moon:

Image credit: NASA / JPL

The above photo was taken by NASA's New Horizon probe in 2007. Europa is in the foreground, with Io in the background. Both moons' night sides are facing New Horizon. Io's surface is illuminated by Jupitershine. Europa is closer to New Horizon and not illuminated by the nearby gas giant. The blue plume visible near Io's north pole shows an eruption of the Tvashtar volcanic region. The filaments discernible within the plume have not yet been explained.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Update: SpaceX's Falcon 9R / Cassiope Launch Viewing from Vandenberg AFB

Update - September 29, 1:00 pm. This morning's launch was absolutely beautiful - blue skies, great visibility, Falcon 9R climbing into the sky in a graceful arc, meeting all major mission objectives. 

Update - September 27 - 3:30 pm. Launch remains scheduled for this coming Sunday, September 29, with a 2-hour launch window that opens at 9 a.m. PDT. It's possible the launch could slip to Monday with the same launch window.

I plan to watch from Providence Landing Park (697 Mercury Ave, Lompoc), just South of Vandenberg Village. 

Other viewing locations that have been suggested:  Floradale Ave., Harris Grade Road and Coral Road. A map with the exact pad location is included at the end of this article. 

Some of us launch chasers will meet at 7:30 a.m. on Sunday at Lompoc Donuts, 400 N H St in Lompoc before heading out to the viewing locations. Feel free to join.

The weather on both Sunday and Monday at Vandenberg looks good; clear, sunny days with 0% chance of rain and highs in the low- to mid-70s.

Icing on the cake: Here's the mission patch for Falcon 9R's maiden launch.

Image credit: SpaceX 
Mission patch for SpaceX's maiden launch of its flagship next generation Falcon 9 rocket, the company's first launch from Vandenberg AFB. 
Can you identify the meaning of all the elements?

Update - September 25, 2:30 pm. Info from SpaceX today confirms Sunday, September 29 launch date, with a 9-11 a.m. window. Specifically, SpaceX is saying that launch on Sunday is "likely", but cannot say exactly what time between 9 and 11. If Sunday's launch is scrubbed, another attempt can be made on Monday, September 30, 9-11 am. On both days, the launch window assumes "good weather".

Translation: This is the closest I've seen to a firm date being set for this launch since June, so I'm optimistic. At the same time, I'm making plans to be able to attend both a Sunday or Monday launch, keeping in mind that there may be a scrub on both days due to weather or other issues.

Update - September 23, 12:30 pm. I have created a Facebook Group for rogue tweetup / social attendees, feel free to join:
I am Thalia Noir on FB. My real name is Claudia Taake, @ct_la on twitter.

Update - September 23, 11:00 am. and Vandenberg AFB's launch schedule both list Sunday, September 29 as the launch date for SpaceX's Falcon 9R currently on pad SLC-4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The launch window is 9-11 a.m. PDT.

I recommend Providence Landing Park just south of Vandenberg Village as a viewing location. It is public, has parking, is elevated and about 10 miles from the pad. I am currently working on scouting out viewing locations closer to the pad and will post them here as the launch date approaches.

I am also organizing an informal post-launch tweetup / social for space geeks going to the launch who also follow this blog or my twitter / FB accounts. Anyone who'd like to join us is welcome. I'm currently considering a picnic at Providence Landing Park and a post-launch get-together at a local restaurant or cafe, or both. Please use the comments section below to let me know if you would like to participate or email me, ctaake23 at For a restaurant get together, I will need an approximate head count to make reservations. Feel free to make suggestions, especially if you're familiar with the area around VAFB. 

If this launch is successful, SpaceX is planning to use facilities at VAFB for 30 launches over the next 5 year and we will finally have Space Coast West. SpaceX launches from VAFB may very well become regular occurrences in SoCal!

If you are making travel plans, keep in mind that the launch date may slip again prior to next Sunday. This is a maiden launch that has been slipping since June. However, this time, the rocket is actually on the pad and has successfully completed its static fire test. 
This is a good sign!

Scroll down for more info about this launch, the Cassiope satellite, pictures, videos and a map of the launch pad location. I've been updating this article for about a month now.

Update - September 20, 6:00 pm. SpaceX conducted its second hot fire test yesterday. It went off with all systems green for launch. The launch window opens on September 29/30. I will post updates here as soon as more info becomes available. In the meantime, here is a little preview video, showing yesterday's successful static fire.

Update - September 15, 3:45 pm. SpaceX did not conduct a second hot fire test yesterday. Early this morning, @elonmusk tweeted this update: 

Update - September 14, 2:00 pm. Thursday's hot fire revealed some issues that SpaceX is currently analyzing. Another hot fire is scheduled for today, Sept. 14, along with the Launch Readiness Review. Launch has been delayed from Sunday, September 15; all sources say "to be determined" at this time. I'm unsure if this means "a few days" or "maybe in a month or two". Usually, a launch happens within a week of a hot fire without issues. Since Falcon 9 v1.1 has a lot of new technology, it could go either way.  

Update - September 12, 7:00 pm. Today's hot fire test was successful! has an excellent, detailed summary: Falcon 9R hot fire  Launch is still targeted for this Sunday, Sept. 15, with a 9-11 a.m. launch window. There is a public viewing area at Providence Landing Park just South of Vandenberg Village, ca. 10 miles from SLC-4E. If you know of any other elevated, public viewing locations that are close, please share! Launch Readiness Review and Range approval is still pending. Hopefully, everything will continue to go as smoothly as today's test fire.  I'm getting excited to see SpaceX history being made at Vandenberg this weekend! Here are a few pics:

 Image credit: SpaceX

 Image credit: SpaceX
Images from today's hot fire test at Vandenberg AFB

Image credit: SpaceX
Falcon 9R on launch pad SLC-4E. 

Update - September 11, 6:00 pm. Pre-launch hot fire test scheduled for today has been delayed. No info yet on a launch delay. Launch on Sunday seems less likely. I will continue to post updates here.  

Update - September 10, 5:30 pm. Launch date has slipped from Saturday, Sept. 14 to Sunday, Sept. 15, with a launch window of 9-11 am PDT. A pre-launch firing test was originally scheduled for Sept. 7/8; it is currently scheduled for tomorrow, Wednesday, Sept. 11. Providence Landing Park (see Sept. 4 update below) is a good public viewing spot.  The Falcon 9R launch vehicle is the latest version of SpaceX's flagship rocket and contains quite a bit of new technology. For starters, it is 60% longer than the rockets SpaceX has previous flown into space. 

Click here for more details on the newest Falcon version. The upcoming launch is not only SpaceX's first launch of its largest rocket to date, it's also the private space company's first launch from its home state in CA. SpaceX has been building facilities at Vandenberg Airforce Base for some time (click here for more). The scheduled demo flight is SpaceX's first actual launch from VAFB. Below is a glimpse of the rocket in a tweet from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. The fog swirling about is typical for the location in the summer. I like it ~ 

Update - September 4, 1:30 pm. Thanks to Annie Wynn @acwynn for pointing out Providence Landing Park just South of Vandenberg Village as a publicly accessible viewing location. It is located on high ground with good views to the west. The park is a little over 10 miles from SLC-4E.   

Update - September 4, 11:40 am. has officially moved the launch date to Saturday, September 14. This confirms twitter buzz of a launch slip into mid-September. Soo... we may have a weekend launch. I've gotten an amazing level of interest in this launch via this blog post, enough to organize a #RogueTweetup (a meetup of space tweeps on launch day that is not organized by NASA). To stay updated, follow me on twitter (@ct_la), email me (ctaake23 at or leave a comment below. By now, it's pretty much a certainty that the beach viewing locations I describe below will be closed on launch day. If you have suggestions on viewing opportunities in the Lompoc area, please let me know. I will publish them here. It is my goal to find a public viewing location no further than 10 miles from the pad. In the meantime, Elon Musk chimed in on twitter.  Nothing like a good look at the rocket to give me launch butterflies ~

Update - September 2, 2 pm. I've had feedback that the launch may slip from the 10th into mid-September.   

Update - September 1, 12:40 pm. As of today, launch remains scheduled for September 10.  

Update - August 29, 7:40 pm. I've had feedback that the beach locations could be closed for the launch. That is possible; they have been open in the past during launches from other pads. Even without beach access the pad location is still a good one for off-base viewing. I will continue to collect info ahead of the launch and post updates. Space X's next launch is scheduled for Tuesday, September 10. Veteran launch chasers may have noticed that there is very little information circulating ahead of this launch. Upon the request of its client, SpaceX has, in fact, decided not to allow media access for this launch at VAFB. This also means no official socials or tweetups for us social media space geeks. Publicity around this launch has been sparse. I have collated here everything I know about the launch to date, including a prime public viewing site 3-4 miles from the launch pad! Rogue tweetup, anyone? I was actually not aware until a few days ago that Dragon was scheduled to lift off from Southern California and not Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The original September launch date was set for the 5th. As of today, both and VAFB's launch schedule have moved the date to the 10th, with 9-11 a.m. PDT for the launch window. VAFB is listing both the date and time followed by a question mark.  

About the launch:  
Launch window: 1600-1800 GMT (12-2 p.m. EDT; 9-11 a.m. PDT)   
Launch site: SLC-4E, Vandenberg Air Force Base, near Lompoc, CA (details below).  
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch the Cassiope satellite for the Canadian Space Agency. Cassiope carries a communications relay payload for a commercial digital broadcast courier service and an instrument to observe the Earth's ionosphere. The rocket will fly in the Falcon 9R configuration with upgraded Merlin 1D engines, stretched fuel tanks, and a payload fairing. Delayed from April, June 18, July 9 and Sept. 5.  The vehicle will carry the following satellites as secondary payloads:  CUSat 1 and CUSat 2 (Cornell Univ)  DANDE (Univ of Colorado at Boulder)  POPACS 1, POPACS 2 and POPACS 3 (Utah State Univ).

Where to view the launch:  
If you can travel to Lompoc / VAFB on launch day, I have found a prime viewing spot. There are several challenges inherent in seeing a launch from Vandenberg. Mountainous terrain along the South of VAFB obscures views from the South. Low clouds and fog are common in the area, especially in the summer. The base is huge, extending along the coast around 12 miles. Launch pads are located throughout the base. If you don't know exactly where the launch pad is located, it's tough to find a good public viewing space ahead of time.  Finding the location of the launch pad, Space Launch Complex 4E, was tricky. It was used from 1963-2005 to launch Atlas and Titan rockets, and has been redeveloped since 2011 for use by SpaceX. Current base maps I found did not show SLC-4E as an active launch pad. Don't ask me what it took to find and verify SLC-4E's coordinates, but when I did, I got a nice surprise: It couldn't be in a better location for prime public viewing! Surf Beach and Ocean Beach Park, while located on VAFB, are publicly accessible with parking. Both are only about 3-4 (!) miles north of SLC-4E. From the beach locations, SLC-4E is not obscured by the mountain terrain at the South. The view should be extraordinary - however, do keep in mind the possibility of fog or low clouds. Still, if we can get that close to the launch, the very thrill of hearing and *feeling* it is worth the trip!  

Be prepared for limited to no cell reception and wi-fi. VAFB is a huge cell phone "dead zone" in my experience. I will do my best to live tweet the launch. I am heading to the beach location early in the morning on September 10 from West LA, with an arrival time in Lompoc before 9 a.m., driving back that afternoon. I still have room for one or two people in the car. Leave a comment or email me if you are interested.

  View Larger Map
Location of Space Launch Complex 4E on Vandenberg Air Force Base. Surf Beach and Ocean Beach Park are public beaches accessible from nearby Lompoc.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Comet ISON - Celestial Display Of Our Lifetime?

Update - November 9, 2013:

Comet ISON continues its journey to the center of our solar system for its perilous Thanksgiving Day maneuver around the sun. Whether or not ISON will survive its close encounter with our sun is still unknown. 

Astronomers will keep a close eye on ISON and study the comet's composition by observing which gases boil off the comet's core as it approaches perihelion. 

At the time the image below was taken, ISON was 212 million km (132 million mi) from Earth, roughly half the distance to Mars. 

The picture was taken on October 25, 2013 with a 36-cm (14-in.) telescope at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. I have not yet come across ISON sightings with the naked eye. Please let me know if you have sightings or photos to share in this post as I publish updates during ISON's approach.

The streak across the right side of the photo was caused by the passage of Italy's SkyMed2 satellite through the frame.
(Thanks for the photobomb, SkyMed2!)


 Image credit: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

Comet ISON on its way to the sun - October 25, 2013

Image credit: Adam Block via

Comet ISON - October 8, 2013

The above image was published on the website for the Comet ISON Observing Campaign (CIOC), along with an article that explains why ISON appears to have a greenish tinge.


Update - November 6, 2013: 
As we close in on Thanksgiving Day and ISON's hairpin turn around the sun, the comet's fate at perihelion is still unknown. Amazing images have emerged of ISON's journey into the inner solar system. Astronomers on Earth have already imaged it. 

We are only four months away from what could turn out to be the most stunning astronomical event of the year - potentially of our lifetimes and the entire century. Or we could end up disappointed. 

It all depends on whether or not Comet ISON will survive its plunge towards and tight turn around the sun during the far end of the outbound leg of its orbit. The comet is known as a sungrazer because of how closely it will travel to the sun. has a nice infographic that illustrates ISON’s journey through our solar system.

ISON was discovered only recently, in September 2012, by Russian astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok. The comet is named after the telescope for the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON), which is operated by an association of 10 nations that cooperate to track objects in space. 

This image of ISON on its way to Earth was taken by the Hubble Telescope on April 30, when ISON was traveling between Jupiter and the asteroid belt on its way to the inner solar system. The image is a composite of five photos taken by the Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 2 UVIS instrument. Three exposures were taken with a filter that let in yellow and green light (seen as blue in the image) while two used a filter that let in red / infra-red light. The result is a simulation of what human eyes would see if they looked at ISON with the Hubble telescope’s resolution.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage Team

This breathtaking image of Comet ISON heading towards Earth and the Sun was taken by the 
Hubble Telescope on April 30, 2013

To give you an idea of what you are truly looking at, consider the following:

- Comet ISON originated in the far regions of our solar system in the Oort Cloud and started its journey 10,000 years ago.

- This is thought to be ISON’s first trip into the center of our solar system. But if it isn’t, humanity would be unlikely to have a record of a prior passage.

- ISON will travel within 724,000 miles (1.16 million kilometers) of the sun’s surface at its closest approach, while making a hairpin turn around the sun. 

- The comet’s nucleus is 3-4 miles wide and consists of ice, gas and dust particles. The comet’s tail is created as ISON heats up plunging toward the sun, trailing a tail of particles that will grow by 200 million kilograms per day as dust and ice evaporate off the nucleus. 

- ISON’s tail is already gigantic – long enough to wrap around the Earth seven times.

- If ISON survives its brush with the sun’s heat, radiation and tidal forces on Thanksgiving Day 2013, it will light up the skies for days, even weeks, and appear as bright or brighter than the moon this December. 

- ISON’s celestial display could well equal breathtaking displays of previous comet sightings in history.

If ISON delivers upon its promise of a jaw-dropping celestial display, I will throw a comet watching party in December for my birthday. 

Reading about ISON reminded me of Gregory Benford’s and David Brin’s visionary book Heart of the Comet (1986). What if we could hitch a ride on ISON at its closest passage to Earth, establish a colony inside the comet’s nucleus and send “cometary humans” off onto a journey to the furthest reaches of our solar system – a voyage that will not return back to Earth for many thousands of years?

To me, ISON’s discovery only last year, its close passage to Earth, along with the recent surprise meteor impact in Russia represent another wake-up call that we must redouble our efforts to make human life multi-planetary. What if ISON were headed for a collision course straight with Earth? Would we be able to muster the technology, capacity and international cooperation needed to prevent impact in a few short months? What if we couldn’t? Our planet would survive but would humanity be as lucky? How big will the next asteroid be that we can’t see coming because it well be headed for Earth straight out of the sun like the Russian meteorite? What if the next one is ISON-sized? Can we as a species really afford to sit on our hands and do nothing while we have the technology to colonize the moon and Mars?

Update - July 29, 2013: 
Well, it was fun to imagine cometary fireworks in our skies for a couple hours.... Here is an interpretation of available observation data that predicts ISON will likely break apart before perihelion or will not survive its close encounter with the sun.