After much speculation about whether the Comet ISON would survive its approaching close encounter with the sun, Hubble Space Telescope photographs suggest that it is holding together thus far, Space.com reports. Some astronomers predicted that the comet would be unable to remain intact on its journey that takes it perilously close to the sun, but so far ISON is proving them wrong. “In this NASA Hubble Space Telescope image taken on Oct. 9, the comet’s solid nucleus is unresolved because it is so small. If the nucleus broke apart then Hubble would have likely seen evidence for multiples fragments,” officials with the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore said in a statement. Scientists also observed that the polar jet of dust fire seen in previous photos was not observed in the new photographs, suggesting that it has dissipated.
The new photograph was captured when ISON was within the orbit of Mars, about 177 million miles away from Earth. Scientists believe that this is ISON’s first journey through our solar system. It is headed for a near-crash course with the sun, targeted to skim only 730, 000 miles above the surface of the sun. Scientists have questioned whether the comet will survive such a close encounter; if it does, they predict it will pass back by the Earth on its exit from the solar system. Specifically, scientists wondered if the sun’s energy heating the comet would cause its nucleus to fragment, Discovery News explains. If the nucleus fragmented, the comet would essentially vanish as the pieces separated.
ISON’s close pass with the sun is estimated to occur on November 28. Its closest approach with Earth, if it survives its encounter with the sun, will be December 26, when it will light up skies in a potentially impressive display. ISON was discovered just one year ago in September 2012, by the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON), near Kislovodsk, Russia. Scientists believe that it may have originated in the Oort Cloud, a reservoir of remains from the creation of the solar system that is approximately 1 light-year away from the sun. ISON has traveled far to reach the sun, and scientists have been watching it closely and positioning telescopes to attempt to gain better photographs of the comet in order to learn more about the origin of the specific comet and of comets in general. Large comets like ISON are not common, so any information the scientists can gather during its lifetime could be very significant.