Rare comet makes 1st pass of sun

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SAN DIEGO  – The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center hosted an early-morning viewing party for the comet ISON early Tuesday morning as the cosmic body approaches the sun.

comet newThe event in Balboa Park began at 5:30 a.m.

“This is a very special comet coming from out beyond the orbit of Pluto and the area called the Oort cloud,” said John Young of The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.  “It’s the first time that we’ve seen it come by the sun and we’re learning a lot about the nature of comets from it.”

According to NASA, the comet will reach its closest approach to the sun on Thanksgiving Day, skimming just 730,000 miles above the sun’s surface.

Astronomers call ISON a “sungrazer.”

The comet’s ability to survive its encounter with the sun was the subject of speculation Monday on the website of NASA’s Comet ISON Observing Campaign.

It was reported that molecular emissions from the comet have fallen dramatically, while dust production became enormous.

NASA said the changes could indicate that the nucleus has been completely disrupted, releasing a massive volume of dust while significantly reducing emission rates.

Fragmentation or disruption of the nucleus has always been a possibility for the comet, according to the space agency.

If ISON somehow survives being slingshotted around the sun, it is expected to be extremely bright and visible to the naked eye.

The comet was first spotted while it was 585 million miles away by scientists at the International Scientific Optical Network — ISON – near Kislovodsk, Russia, in September 2012.

This is its first trip around the sun, which means it is still made of pristine matter from the earliest days of the solar system’s formation, its top layers never having been lost by a trip near the sun, according to the space agency.

Another comet from the same region of space, called the Oort Cloud, is due to enter the solar system next year, according to the museum.

Lisa Will, the Fleet’s resident astronomer, will be on hand for the museum’s viewing party, along with John Young, the planetarium producer; Jason Hammond, education manager of school programs; and Mary Anderson, Fleet sky photographer.

Galileo’s Cafe at the museum will be open for breakfast.

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