Spitzer confirms Comet ISON powered by gas

This spectacular celestial object is fast approaching


By Kieron Allen


The image on the left shows rocky dust in ISON's tail. The image on the right, with the dust removed, shows a gas atmosphere surrounding the comet.

With Comet C/2012 S1 ISON well on its way to the inner Solar System, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has observed what astronomers believe to be massive levels of carbon dioxide emanating from the comet’s tail.

New images taken with Spitzer's Infrared Array Camera suggest that carbon dioxide gas is gradually being expelled from the comet - along with dust - in a tail almost 300,000 kilometers long. 

"We estimate ISON is emitting about 1 million kilograms of what is most likely carbon dioxide gas and about 54.4 million kilograms of dust every day," said Carey Lisse, leader of NASA's Comet ISON Observation Campaign. "Thanks to Spitzer, we now know for sure the comet's distant activity has been powered by gas." 

ISON will make its closest approach to Earth on 26 December 2013 and scientists hope that it could help explain how and when the Solar System first formed. James L. Green is NASA's director of planetary science, “Like all comets, ISON is a dirty snowball made up of dust and frozen gases such as water, ammonia, methane and carbon dioxide,” he said. “These are some of the fundamental building blocks, which scientists believe led to the formation of the planets 4.5 billion years ago.”


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