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Comet ISON Bubbles, Reveals Secrets of Early Solar System

Though more than three million miles distant, Comet ISON, also known as the “soda pop” comet, is putting on quite a show for the planet’s best equipped observatories. The active comet is headed heads towards a close encounter with the sun in late November and will perhaps creates quite a spectacle in the night skies of the Earth.

ISON, a comet to watch, gets active. Photo Credit/NASA Imagery

Experts believe ISON is making its first journey through the solar system from its home in the Oort Cloud, a spherical collection of comets and other debris left over from the formation of the sun and planets 4.5 billion years ago.

The journey is permitting astronomers to get a close look at the original state of those primordial materials.

ISON as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope in May. Photo Credit/NASA

ISON sports a tail more than 186,000 miles long. As it closes in on the sun, the heat will start to increase the fireworks. The latest images, gathered on June 13 by NASA’s decade old Spitzer infrared space telescope, suggest the less than three mile wide comet is losing 2.2 million pounds of carbon dioxide and 120 million pounds of dust each day.

“These fabulous observations of ISON are unique and set the stage for more observations and discoveries to follow as part of a comprehensive NASA campaign to observe the comet,” said James L. Green, NASA’s director of planetary science in Washington, in a statement. “ISON is very exciting. We believe that data collected from this comet can help explain how and when the solar system first formed.”

The comet was discovered Sept. 21, roughly when it was traveling between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn, by Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok at the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON) near Kislovodsk, Russia. The find is considered an early detection by astronomers, and the heavy carbon dioxide emissions may have made the discovery possible.

ISON is about the size of a small mountain, but its mass is still anyone’s guess. Experts are optimistic that ISON, formally known as Comet ISON C/2012/S1, will accelerate the pace at which it reveals its secrets.

“This observation gives us a good picture of part of the composition of ISON, and, by extension, of the proto-planetary disk from which the planets were formed,” said Carey Lisse, leader of NASA’s Comet ISON Observation Campaign and a senior research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory inLaurel,Md.

“Much of the carbon in the comet appears to be locked up in carbon dioxide ice,” Lisse explained in a statement. “We will know even more in late July and August, when the comet begins to warm up near the water-ice line outside of the orbit of Mars, and we can detect the most abundant frozen gas, which is water, as it boils away from the comet.”







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