Reports of Comet ISON's death may be greatly exaggerated

The sun-grazing comet spent Thanksgiving visiting our neighborhood star, and seems to have emerged from its shadow to tell the tale.

ISON (or fragments thereof) emerges from behind the sun on its path back out of the solar system and past Earth. ESA/NASA/SOHO/GSFC

It made for perhaps the nerdiest Thanksgiving moment ever when I plugged a Google Chromecast into my mother's TV on Thursday and proceeded to put a live NASA Google+ Hangout on Comet ISON 's sun-grazing journey on the screen in the living room.

By the time all the pumpkin pie had been knocked back and the turkey set to work lulling me into a coma, ISON had failed to emerge from the sun's shadow after reaching perihelion, leading many observers to conclude that the comet had been destroyed by its close encounter with the massive nuclear furnace at the center of our galactic cul-de-sac.

ISON is a breed of comet fresh in from the Oort Cloud, the likes of which have not been observed from Earth in many years. If it were to survive perihelion, it would be flung back out to deep space, perhaps giving off a spectacular light show for us on planet No. 3 in the process.

That's the best-case scenario. Worst-case scenario is that ISON is basically swallowed by the sun, and for most of Thursday that seemed to be the actual-case scenario as well.

Then NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory satellite sent back an image that seemed to show...something. Here's how NASA's Karen Fox described it in a blog post:

The question remains whether it is merely debris from the comet, or if some portion of the comet's nucleus survived, but late-night analysis from scientists with NASA's Comet ISON Observing Campaign suggest that there is at least a small nucleus intact.

In other words, Comet ISON seems to have survived in some form, but it's not yet clear if what remains of it will put on the spectacular light show in the coming weeks that we've been hearing about for months now.

Fox says ISON has been behaving in unexpected ways, so the way its long-anticipated Thanksgiving perihelion went down seems true to form. Now it's time to sit back and await the big show...or the big disappointment.

Meanwhile, NASA created an elegant GIF of ISON's encounter with the sun.

 

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