As Americans put turkeys in the oven on Thanksgiving, the Comet ISON will make its closest approach to the sun, skimming just 730,000 miles above its surface.
Though the comet, a vestige from when the solar system was created, may not be be visible to the naked eye until December, NASA hopes to satisfy those that can't wait beyond tomorrow
"There's great interest in comet ISON," said Don Yeomans, a senior research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "First, it's coming from the very edge of our solar system so it stills retains the primordial ices from which it formed four-and-a-half billion years ago.
"It's been traveling from the outer edge of the solar system for about five-and-a-half million years to reach us in the inner solar system, and it's going to make an extremely close approach to the sun. Hence it could become very bright and possibly a very easy naked-eye object in early December," he added.
NASA will capture images of ISON's approach to the sun to share them with the public tomorrow via its website.
NASA said its Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft will grab images from three different positions as ISON moves through its perihelion, the point in its orbit that's closest to the sun. The website will show near real-time images along with video of ISON's journey and possible demise.
The images should begin appearing sometime between 12:45 pm and 1:00 pm ET, NASA reported on the website.
I mages of ISON will also be posted tomorrow at the website of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory.
NASA's Stereo Science Center will use volunteer ground stations to capture real-time, lower-resolution images.
Scientists are hoping that by studying ISON, they will gain clues to the ancient formation of the solar system and its planets.
"The reason we study Comet ISON to begin with is because it's a relic," said Carey Lisse, a senior research scientist with Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, during a NASA news conference Tuesday.
"It's a dinosaur bone of solar system formation. You need comets in order to build the planets. This comet has been in a deep freeze half way to the next star for the last four and a half billion years. It's just been coming in over the last few millions years and possibly even started around the dawn of man," he added.
ISON, which is smaller than a normal comet at about three-quarters of a mile across, is a loosely packed formation of ice and dust.
Lisse said there's a 70% chance it won't survive traveling so close to the sun's blazing hot surface.
While the comet could survive passing so close to the sun, there's a greater chance that the combined forces of the sun's heat and gravitational forces will pull it apart into several large pieces or that it will burst into a cloud of dust.
NASA says that some scientists believe that the comet already is breaking apart, but Lisse says that while some pieces may have been cast off, the comet is likely still holding together.
Whatever happens to ISON, which has become the most observed comet in history, it's likely to provide a spectacular show for astronomers -- and the public.
Six telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope, have been used to track and study the comet.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is [email protected].
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