Oort cloud tosses astronomers a cometary curveball

Pretty much every major telescope in the world is gearing up to witness a meeting that has been scheduled since long before humans walked the Earth. Around Thanksgiving, Comet ISON, a mountain-sized chunk of primordial solar system, will approach within 2 million kilometers of the sun and either fall apart or slingshot back into deep space. Astronomers aren’t sure yet how much of a spectacle ISON will be for earthbound observers, but from their vantage point the comet is already providing a brief, unprecedented glimpse into what the solar system was like in its infancy.
“It’s the sort of thing I’ve been waiting for my whole career,” says Matthew Knight, a comet researcher with the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz.
ISON, officially known as Comet C/2012 S1, was discovered by the astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok. The pair spotted the comet as part of a sky survey program known as the International Science Optical Network. Using a telescope near Kislovodsk, Russia, the astronomers first glimpsed ISON just outside Jupiter's orbit on September 21, 2012. Within days, scientists had recovered months’ worth of previously unnoticed images of the comet and calculated its trajectory from the outskirts of the solar system millions of years ago to its present location, and projected its future path as well.


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