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Scientists: Sun-grazing comet likely broke up

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Space Thanksgiving

STOCKHOLM (AP) - Once billed as the comet of the century, Comet ISON apparently was no match for the sun.

Scientists said images from NASA spacecraft showed the comet approaching for a slingshot around the sun on Thursday, but just a trail of dust coming out on the other end.

"It does seem like Comet ISON probably hasn't survived this journey," U.S. Navy solar researcher Karl Battams said in a Google+ hangout.

Phil Plait, an astronomer who runs the "Bad Astronomy" blog, agreed, saying "I don't think the comet made it."

Still, he said, it wouldn't be all bad news if the 4.5-billion-year-old space rock broke up into pieces, because astronomers might be able to study them and learn more about comets.

"This is a time capsule looking back at the birth of the solar system," he said.

The comet was two-thirds of a mile wide as it got within 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) of the sun, which in space terms basically means grazing it.

NASA solar physicist Alex Young said it would take a few hours to confirm ISON's demise, but admitted things were not looking good.

He said the comet had been expected to show up in images from the Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft at around noon eastern time (1700 GMT), but almost four hours later there was "no sign of it whatsoever."

"Maybe over the last couple of days it's been breaking up," Young told The Associated Press. "The nucleus could have been gone a day or so ago."

Images from other spacecraft showed a light streak continuing past the sun, but Young said that was most likely a trail of dust continuing in the comet's trajectory.

"The comet itself is definitely gone, but it looks like there is a trail of debris," he said.

Comet ISON was first spotted by a Russian telescope in September last year.

Some sky gazers speculated early on that it might become the comet of the century because of its brightness, although expectations dimmed as it got closer to the sun.

Made up of loosely packed ice and dirt, it was essentially a dirty snowball from the Oort cloud, an area of comets and debris on the fringes of the solar system.

Two years ago, a smaller comet, Lovejoy, grazed the sun and survived, but fell apart a couple of days later.

"That's why we expected that maybe this one would make it because it was 10 times the size," Young said.

It may be a while before there's a sun-grazer of the same size, he said.

"They are pretty rare," Young said. "So we might not see one maybe even in our lifetime."

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norman November 28 2013 at 11:46 PM

Well it lasted a long, long time but nothing "lasts forever!" Big N

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polarbears217 November 29 2013 at 2:49 AM

...Its amazing that we can even see an object moving around so far away and possibly from so far away....The magnitude of distance, space and time is incomprehensible....Even the closest single star besides the sun is 4 light years away.....in distance....One light year is 5.8 trillion miles.....
How bright, hot and amazing a single star must be...not to mention the millions of others out there.....The light that we see from them is thousands of years old....The light they emitted in Biblical times....or when our nation was founded has not yet reached us.....To have even a comet come by and pay us a visit as close as our sun is probably the closest we'll come to a hello....in our entire existence.....
....I wonder why we think our lives and the things we're involved in seem so huge and amazing in this light....

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Brian November 29 2013 at 1:15 AM

As comets travel in their orbits around the sun the tail of dust always points away from the sun so its not always behind the comet as it is acted upon by solar winds.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
SKCRCPUSCG November 29 2013 at 1:00 AM

What is awesome here, is being human and comprehending these magnificent natural revelations, and, just to think, our sun and solar system is one of the lesser players in our galaxy.

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Duane Wilson November 29 2013 at 12:54 AM

250k kph death spiral into the sun...what a way to go!

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jwalk2235 November 29 2013 at 10:28 AM

The comet should have gone around the sun at night. It is a lot cooler then.

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6 replies
paulw3tzi November 29 2013 at 4:06 AM

That explains why I never saw anything. Back to the drawing board. Remember SL-9? The one that broke up and hit Jupiter? Stuff happens. I photographed Hale-Bopp back in the 90's with my film camera and telephoto lens. Success. Nice shots. The Oort cloud is full of comets waiting to get turned loose. Despite this "anomaly", good luck to the comet hunters.

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mysticsol8 November 29 2013 at 10:10 AM

Story is outdated. ISON survived the sun as reported at www.spaceweather.com they have a video from SOHO coronagraph and it has re-appeared. http://www.spaceweather.com/images2013/29nov13/weird_anim.gif?PHPSESSID=ci8so3pla4qdp64b3dp99id8a4

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norman November 28 2013 at 11:54 PM

OK, you have ice and dirt heading for intense heat...which will survive longer? Hmm...NK

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MIKE November 29 2013 at 6:36 AM

That's funny because spaceweather.com has pictures of it (or at least a very large piece of it) clearly coming out from behind the sun.

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1 reply
dropdeadlegs35 MIKE November 29 2013 at 9:25 AM

Agreed. I think the "pros" are lying for some reason, but I do believe Ison made it! Or enough of it that they can't say it "broke up". There is more than meets the eye here.. Only time will tell.....

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