Scientists are working to determine and to understand the fate of Comet ISON as it moves away from the sun.
The question that is in the mind of scientists is whether the bright spot seen moving away from the sun was simply debris, or whether a small nucleus of the original ball of ice was still there.
Comet ISON, which began its journey from the Oort Cloud some 3 million years ago, made its closest approach to the sun on Nov. 28, 2013.
The comet was visible in instruments on NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory, or STEREO, and the joint European Space Agency/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO, via images called coronagraphs. Coronagraphs block out the sun and a considerable distance around it, in order to better observe the dim structures in the sun’s atmosphere, the corona.
As such, there was a period of several hours when the comet was obscured in these images, blocked from view along with the sun. During this period of time, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory could not see the comet, leading many scientists to surmise that the comet had disintegrated completely.
However, something did reappear in SOHO and STEREO coronagraphs some time later – though it was significantly less bright.
Whether that spot of light was merely a cloud of dust that once was a comet, or if it still had a nucleus – a small ball of its original, icy material – intact, is still unclear.
It seems likely that as of Dec. 1, there was no nucleus left. By monitoring its changes in brightness over time, scientists can estimate whether there’s a nucleus or not, but our best chance at knowing for sure will be if the Hubble Space Telescope makes observations later in December 2013.