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Comet ISON: "Comet of the Century"

April 27, 2013; 6:48 AM ET

386 million miles away, just inside the orbit of Jupiter shines what could be the "Comet Of The Century" ISON. Scientist believe that ISON will have the potential to put on a dazzling light show in November.

Where does the name ISON come from?

ISON stands for International Scientific Optical Network, a group of observatories in ten countries who have organized to detect, monitor, and track objects in space. ISON is managed by the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which found ISON in Sept 2012.

As 2013 unfolds, the comet is still very far away. But for an object at such extreme distance, it is actually very bright. The comet's glow suggests that is spewing gas and dust from a fairly large nucleus in the 1 to 10 km range.

On Nov. 28, 2013, this dirty snowball will fly through the sun's atmosphere little more than a million kilometers from the stellar surface. If the comet survives it could emerge glowing as brightly as the Moon, briefly visible near the sun in broad daylight. The comet's dusty tail stretching into the night sky could create a worldwide sensation.

Comet ISON has the potential to live up to the hype, but it also has the potential to do nothing.

One major hazard this comet faces is the sun. Tidal forces and solar radiation have been known to destroy comets fairly quickly. A recent example is Comet Elenin, which broke apart and dissipated in 2011 as it approached the sun. Elenin, however, was a much smaller comet than ISON's 3-4 mile wide nucleus. A great comparison to ISON would be what Comet Lovejoy which dazzled observers in 2011 with a its garnished long tail.

Comet ISON is probably at least twice as big as Comet Lovejoy and will pass a bit farther from the sun's surface. This would seem to favor Comet ISON surviving and ultimately putting on a good show. One that could rival Comet McNaught.

One of the most exciting possibilities would be a partial break-up of the nuclues itself. If Comet ISON splits, it might appear as a string of pearls when viewed through a telescope. It might even resemble the famous Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 that hit Jupiter in 1994.

Whatever happens, northern sky watchers will get a good view. For months after it swings by the sun, Comet ISON will be well placed for observers in the northern hemisphere. It will pass almost directly over the North Pole, making it a circumpolar object visible all night long.

Photo's of ISON from Hubble and skymap

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By AccuWeather Astronomy expert Hunter Clifton Outten.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of AccuWeather, Inc. or AccuWeather.com

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Astronomy Blog
The AccuWeather.com astronomy blog, by Dave Samuhel, discusses stargazing, including how weather will affect viewing conditions of astronomical phenomenon.