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The 3- to 4-mile-diameter chunk of ice and rock has spent more than 4 billion years in the frozen depths of space, and on Thanksgiving, it will get so close to the sun that it will reach 5,000 degrees — hot enough to melt iron, said Seth Jarvis, director of Clark Planetarium.
In fact, it will get so close to the sun that it will be subject to the powerful tidal forces emitted by the star, and the comet’s nucleus could be torn apart.
ISON began brightening significantly late last week, and if that trend continues, it could make for a sight visible with the naked eye in the low east-southeast horizon in the pre-dawn sky and could last through mid-January. If the comet is torn apart, though, a best-case scenario would be a bright flash visible to Earth, and then nothing more.
“It’s rare that we see a sun grazer that’s significant enough in size that it has a good probability it will survive,” Jarvis said. “But that’s the cool stuff, that we’re not sure what’s going to happen.”
Patrick Wiggins, NASA/JPL solar system ambassador to Utah, said he has become more encouraged in the past few days.
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed that with a little bit of luck we’ll have a nice comet to see around the Thanksgiving time frame, but I’m not putting any money on it,” Wiggins said.
Jarvis shares Wiggins’ cautious optimism.
“Astronomy is always a great way to teach humility, and with comets, that’s especially true,” said Jarvis, who remembers with a pang of heartache Comet Kohoutek, which ended up costing him a girlfriend back in 1973. That one astronomers touted as the Comet of the Century, and when it fizzled in the wee hours of a particularly cold December night, a certain girl who was woken up and dragged to the top of East Canyon for nothing never really wanted anything to do with Jarvis again.