NAOJ with data processing by Masafumi Yagi (NAOJ)
Comet Lovejoy, above, has been invisibly and steadfastly cruising alongside the now-defunct comet ISON, though with fewer destructive tendencies. The Subaru telescope in Hawaii obtained the data that went into this image.

Comet ISON Is Dead, but December Skies Still Sparkle


Comet ISON may have broken up as it grazed the sun, but the skies are still starry, Venus is bright, and there’s a meteor shower in store.

The consensus is that comet ISON’s sun plunge proved fatal, save for some debris that seems to be floating along the ex–celestial body’s orbital path. Without a nucleus, it is not much of a comet—and the nucleus, astronomers agree, seems to have been burnt to a cosmic crisp when the comet passed within 730,000 miles of the sun on Thanksgiving Day.

RELATED: Comet ISON Right on Time for Thanksgiving Rendezvous With Sun

Though NASA scientists are still combing images and sifting data to determine what if anything survived, they have already called off what was supposed to be December’s main astronomical attraction. Even if something is traveling along the path formerly occupied by comet ISON, it is expected to be dim as it quickly dissipates.

RELATED: Comet ISON: Dead or Alive? Astronomers Still Don’t Know

So what now? With no showstopper, is there still a show? As it turns out, there is plenty, starting with … another comet. This would be comet Lovejoy (that’s C/2013 R1 to you), discovered by Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy in September (his fourth such find). It has been traveling alongside (at least from our vantage point) ISON for the past several weeks, though lacking the same self-destructive tendencies—its orbit did not take it any closer to the sun than Mercury, keeping the comet intact, according to Universe Today.

It will reach perihelion, its closest approach to the sun, on Christmas Day, the astronomy website said. Seeing this one requires a bit of equipment, as it is not visible to the naked eye. But binoculars or a small telescope should do the trick.

For those without access to said equipment, there is always Venus, the shining, constant planet of love (or war, if you go the Maya route). The second planet from the sun is as close to us as it ever gets, and though December 6 saw its brightest apparition, the orb is still brilliant for a few hours just after sunset.

It’s in the low southwestern sky, reports. Ironically, it is not a “full” Venus that we are faced with, yet it is brighter than that would be because when the planet is facing us will full-on sun illumination, it is much farther away, on the other side of our star, and thus much dimmer. At the moment Venus is relatively close to Earth, so is especially dazzling these days, even though we’re only getting a portion of the disk.

Of course, unless you’re using some of the aforementioned equipment, that distinction will be meaningless. All the naked-eye stargazer will see is the unparalleled beauty of this gleaming diamond in the sky, especially as it brushes with the waxing crescent moon.

In the middle of the month, on December 13 and 14, the Geminid meteor shower peaks—and this time the moon is poised to offer minimal interference, unlike the last two showers, the Geminids and the Orionids, which were outshone. 

RELATED: Orionids, Dimmed by Moonlight, Will Do Their Best to Shine

More Meteors! Leonid Shower Strives to Outshine Full Moon 

So yes, though ISON may be nothing but free-floating icy debris, there are still plenty of reasons to look up this month.


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Marietta Alexander's picture
Marietta Alexander
Submitted by Marietta Alexander on

The word is that something may happen December 13, 14, or 15th; do not know anything more. Just be safe and not sorry; do some preparations; water, extra non perishable food etc. These meteor showers may prove to be more than just a show!

GWBuffalo's picture
Submitted by GWBuffalo on

As medicine men who use fire ceremonies know, comets are warnings for priests to get jiggy helping the spirits/gods solve a problem. ISON was a warning of Iran's dream to launch on Feb 20 (the 51st day of the year) for the 2nd attempt. As it has burned BUT keeps blipping, the situation is immediately in control but bares monitoring. Lovejoy was a warning of an earthquake in Europe AND 2012's worries.