Comet ISON is less than two weeks away from reaching the sun. Many amateur astronomers have already been able to catch a glimpse of it using only binoculars, when the sky is dark enough.
There is still a lot of speculation about what will happen as ISON approaches the sun but at least the predictions of ISON’s early destruction appear to have been wrong. There have been some astronomers that have reported “wings” coming off of ISON. This could be a sign that the comet is beginning to disintegrate as it approaches the sun. The good news is that no matter what, ISON will still be a sight to be seen. According to Matthew Knight from the Lowell Observatory, “Regardless of what happens, we’re going to be thrilled.” If ISON breaks apart or if it makes it all the way around the sun, “Astronomers are getting the chance to study a unique comet traveling straight from 4.5 billion years of deep freeze into a near miss with the solar furnace using the largest array of telescopes in history.”
So, how can you catch a view of ISON? One of the easiest ways to find ISON is to download an app on our phone. Here is one example for iOS and here is one for Android. These apps should help you locate ISON, but once you have located it you need to have a good eye. The best place to be is somewhere far from city lights, ideally on a moonless night. ISON should be bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, but it really helps to have some optics. Even a small set of binoculars can be a tremendous help. The most optimistic predictions for ISON say that it will be so bright that it will be visible even during the day. If this ends up being the case, then all you will need to do is look outside.
If you need some background information for yourself or your students, we have some resources for you.
Infographic: This infographic provides a quick look at ISON and why it’s special.
ISON Model: This model is great for showing ISON’s path through our solar system, and when it should be visible to the naked eye.
ISON’s Location: This PDF will help you locate ISON in the night sky. It also has some helpful information.
If you and your students want to catch a glimpse of ISON then time is of the essence. Many believe ISON will survive its approach to the sun – although this is not guaranteed – and that it will put on a good show. It will disappear as it crosses the far side of the sun and after that is anyone’s guess. If ISON survives the trip around the sun we may be gifted with even more stunning views of the comet. However, it is very possible that ISON will not survive its trip around the sun. If this happens astronomers will still have a field day observing what is left, but this outcome will leave the rest of us non-astronomers a little disappointed.