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Dazzling Comet ISON and Comet Lovejoy

This article appeared in the November 22, 2013 edition of the Davis Enterprise.

By Vinita Domier
Special to the Enterprise

The predawn skies in mid to late November will reward the early riser in the northern hemisphere with a double treat of two comets visible with the naked eye. Comet C/2012 S1 ISON has brightened considerably in the last few days and is currently a fourth magnitude object near the star Spica in the constellation Virgo. Comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy is a fifth magnitude object and much higher in the sky in the constellation Canes Venatici, near the Big Dipper asterism.

The November 23, 2013 meeting of the Davis Astronomy Club will focus on the long period comets ISON and Lovejoy. The free meeting will begin at 7pm at the Explorit Science Center (3141 5th Street, Davis). All ages are welcome to attend the featured presentation indoors, followed by the star party outdoors, weather permitting.

Comets are small solar system bodies comprising of chunks of frozen water and gases mixed with dust and rocks. Short period comets (less than 200 years to complete one revolution) mostly reside in the Kuiper Belt, a doughnut shaped ring beyond the orbit of Neptune. Long period comets (more 200 years to complete one revolution) reside in the Oort Cloud, a spherical shell extending half-way to the next star.

When a comet’s orbit brings it close to the sun, the frozen volatile gases in its core are released due to the sun’s radiation. The escaped gaseous and dust particles reflect sunlight, forming a halo around the nucleus of the comet known as the coma. Two tails that extend from the comet’s head can also form: relatively straight ion tail consisting of charged particles always point directly away from the sun, and a curved dust tail that comprises of dust particles.

Comet ISON’s rendezvous with the sun on November 28, 2013, has been a highly anticipated astronomical event since the comet’s discovery in September 2012. This is Comet ISON’s first foray into our solar system from its icy abode in the Oort Cloud. If this relatively small (estimated to be 0.12 to 1.2 miles wide) comet survives its extremely close encounter with the sun, there is the potential for a dazzling spectacle in the sky. At its perihelion (closest distance to the sun) on November 28, the comet will be only 730,000 miles from the sun’s surface. The comet’s closest approach to earth is on December 26, 2013 at a distance of 39.9 million miles.

If the sun-grazing Comet ISON survives the sun’s radiation and gravitational forces without disintegrating, Comet ISON would be a spectacularly bright naked eye object in the predawn east-southeast sky in early to mid December. In late December and early January, Comet ISON would then be a beautifully bright object visible in the sky all night long, living up to its billing as the ‘comet of the century’.

To learn more about comets, be sure to join us for the Explorit Astronomy Club meeting on Saturday, November 23, 2013 at 7:00 p.m.


Explorit’s coming events:

• November 23 – 27 and 30 – 31 Explorit’s Beautiful World: Science and Art exhibition will be open for holiday public hours daily from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. Admission is $5.00 per person and children ages 2 and under are free.  
Explorit Science Center is located at 3141 5th St. For more information call (530) 756-0191 or visit, or “like” us on Facebook at

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