Wednesday, July 17, 2013

New Views Of Comet Ison

Across the world, children fall asleep under the faint light from glow-in-the-dark astronomy stickers. Though undeniably adorable, these ceiling planetariums are too jam-packed to be realistic. You’d never see stars, dozens of spiral galaxies, and comets all at the same time, all shining together from the same patch of sky. Unless, of course, you had Hubble.

Credit:  Hubble Space Telescope

On April 30, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope observed Comet ISON. Compared to the stars and galaxies twinkling behind it, ISON is just a stone’s throw from Earth. Here, though, we see the comet splashed out over deep space, in a collage with colorful, distant neighbors.

The image combines two Hubble filters. One filter lets in red light, which is represented here as red, and the other a greenish-yellow color, which is represented as blue. In general, redder things are older, more evolved, than blue things – this is true both for the crosshair-spiked stars and the smudges of distant galaxies. If you’re wondering what color the Sun would appear in this image, look no further than ISON itself. Unlike the objects in the frame, ISON isn’t bright on its own – it just reflects sunlight back to Earth.

In other ISON observations, Hubble has slewed to point at the comet as it moves across the stars. This is great for getting an image of ISON, but not so great if you want to see the fainter galaxies and stars that comprise ISON’s celestial neighborhood. So for these images, we settled on a tradeoff: as Hubble orbited the Earth, snapping pictures of ISON, we kept the telescope trained on the stars instead of following the comet.

Four stacked images of Comet ISON. Since Hubble followed the background, the comet
shifts position from exposure to exposure. To make the final image, we then shifted these
independent images of ISON into one combined Franken-comet.

As you can see, the comet is fuzzier. But we gain a deep, rich background as photons from the Milky Way’s stars and even more distant galaxies pile up over time in the same pixels. These dimmer features don’t pop out if the camera is moving – to see them, you really need to dwell in one place until they emerge from the noise.

The result is part science, part art. It’s a simulation of what our eyes, with their ability to dynamically adjust to brighter and fainter objects, would see if we could look up at the heavens with the resolution of Hubble. The result is a hodepodge of almost all the meat-and-potatoes subjects of astronomy – no glow-in-the-dark stickers required.

Join planetary astronomers and Host Tony Darnell at 4 p.m. EST July 17 for a Google Hangout discussion of Comet ISON, its origins and destination, and why everyone's so excited about it. You can ask your own questions of the experts on hand, and they'll do their best to answer.

Comet McNaught over the Pacific Ocean, as seen by the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory
Comet McNaught over the Pacific Ocean, viewed by the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory Credit: ESO/Sebastian Deiries
Credit: ESO/Sebastian Deiries

Comet McNaught, or the “Great Comet of 2007,” was the brightest to appear in sky for 40 years. It blazed across the sky of the Southern Hemisphere, visible to the unaided eye even in daylight. Astronomers had to caution viewers to protect their vision when viewing it near the Sun, since it could even be seen close to our dazzling home star. Its huge tail could be glimpsed as far north as Colorado.

Contacts and sources:
Hubble Space Telescope

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