Reports of Comet ISON's death from NASA, the European Space Agency and others may have been greatly exaggerated. As it turns out, Comet ISON – or some part of Comet ISON – appears to have survived. It's a Thanksgiving Day miracle!
Above: ISON emerges from its close encounter with the Sun a white smear, only to grow progressively brighter as it distances itself from our parent star.
Writes Universe Today's Elizabeth Howell (who refers to the comet, most excellently, as "Zombie ISON"):
Talk about the Comeback Kid. After Comet C/2012 S1 ISON rounded the sun yesterday afternoon, professional astronomers around the world looked at the faded debris and concluded it was an "ex-comet." NASA wrapped up an hours-long Google+ Hangout with that news. The European Space Agency declared it was dead on Twitter.
But the remnants — or whatever ISON is now — kept brightening and brightening and brightening in images from the NASA/European Space Agency Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. The pictures are still puzzling astronomers right now, almost a day after ISON's closest encounter with the sun.
What, exactly, is left of ISON remains to be seen. It could be a stream of debris, a flying, "headless" train of dust and ice; or even a particularly tenacious fragment of its formerly intact nucleus. (According to NASA, "late-night analysis from scientists with NASA's Comet ISON Observing Campaign suggest that there is at least a small nucleus intact.") Whatever has become of the comet, some of the latest images released by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SoHO) LASCO instrument (including those at the top of this post) clearly depict that it is, at least, still behaving like a comet. And that, say experts, is very weird.
"Now, in the latest LASCO C3 images, we are seeing something beginning to gradually brighten up again," said astrophysicist Karl Battams, of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, in an update to NASA's Comet ISON Observing Campaign (CIOC) blog. "One could almost be forgiven for thinking that there's a comet in the images!"
Gerhard Scwehm, the European Space Agency's head of planetary science, said this morning via ESA's twitter that continued observation is the only way to know for certain if part of ISON's nucleus has survived, and that this will obviously take more time. And what an incredibly valuable time for observation it is. Bad Astronomer Phil Plait encompasses our feelings on the matter perfectly:
For those keeping score at home, it got bright, then it faded, then it got all smeared out, then it came around the Sun smeared out, and then it seemed to get its act together again. At this point, I refuse to make any further conclusions about this comet; it seems eager to confuse. I've been hearing from comet specialists who are just as baffled… which is fantastic! If we knew what was going on, there'd be nothing more to learn.
More info and updates at NASA, Universe Today and Bad Astronomy.