Comet ISON has enthralled astrophysicists and amateur space-watchers since it was first discovered. It’s been on a trajectory to loop the sun – to do a whip-around fly-by -- since before the creation of mankind. On Thanksgiving Day giant telescopes followed ISON as it moved behind the sun, star-gazers hoping anxiously to see it emerge, brilliant tail burning in the pre-dawn hours of December’s first weeks, heading back to the black frozen outer reaches of space from whence it came.
Friday it looked as though maybe ISON survived, if somewhat damaged and irregular.
“Now it’s brightening!” Dr. Patricia Reiff, associate director for outreach at the Rice Space Institute and a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, told KTRH News Friday after the comet came back into sight. “We’re all really puzzled.” Did it survive or didn’t it? Dr. Reiff said the so-called Comet-of-the-Century had become “Schrödinger’s comet”, a reference to a quantum mechanics theory about a cat that is and isn’t alive simultaneously.
As it turned out, on the other side of the sun, ISON apparently exploded…or more appropriately, dripped.
“As you know, a comet is just a bunch of rock held together by ice,” Dr. Reiff said Sunday afternoon. “And as you know, heat helps ice to melt. Comet ISON just got a little too close to the sun.”
As the weekend progressed ISON’s light dimmed and the remnants are fading away.
“That nucleus catastrophically broke apart,” Dr. Reiff said Sunday. “Basically the ice that was holding it all together melted and what is left is a stream of rubble heading out into space.”
Dr. Reiff recommends watching the SOHO telescope movie showing ISON moving in toward the sun and the pile of rubble that emerges:
“Comets have portended evil throughout history,” she says. “I think this one was no exception. It decided to go bust on us.”
"Still, Comet ISON was gorgeous while it lasted," said Reiff. "A beautiful aqua blue from its molecular Carbon (C2)."