A million-year-old comet may have been a bit more stubborn than we gave it credit for.
Hours after reports of Comet ISON's demise at the hands of the sun late Thursday morning, it appears that maybe at least a small part of the comet may have survived after all.
ISON made its closest approach to the sun late Thursday morning (Seattle time) and while solar cameras trained on the comet showed the icy rock's approach, there were signs it was breaking apart in the minutes before reaching its closest point.
Then early Thursday afternoon, NASA released video from its space telescopes showing ISON's apparent demise, and sent out a Tweet signaling ISON was no more.
Several other tweets also read like an obituary for ISON.
But lo and behold on Thursday evening, Spaceweather.com said that the solar telescopes did show something emerging from the other side the sun -- what exactly it is, they're not sure yet but it is emitting gas and dust again like a traditional comet -- at least for now:
The turn of events has astounded scientists, including Karl Battams with NASA's Comet ISON Observing Campaign. Here is a snippet of what he posted in his blog trying to explain what he just saw:
"After impressing us yesterday, comet ISON faded dramatically overnight, and left us with a comet with no apparent nucleus in the SOHO/LASCO C2 images. As the comet plunged through the solar atmosphere, and failed to put on a show in the SDO images, we understandably concluded that ISON had succumbed to its passage and died a fiery death. Except it didn't. Well, maybe...
After perihelion, a very faint smudge of dust appeared in the the LASCO C2 images along ISON's orbit. This surprised us a little, but we have seen puffs of dust from Sungrazer tails, so it didn't surprise us enormously and didn't change our diagnosis. We watched and waited for that dust trail to fade away. Except it didn't.
Now, in the latest LASCO C3 images, we are seeing something beginning to gradually brighten up again. One could almost be forgiven for thinking that there's a comet in the images!"
There was great hope that had ISON survived mostly intact, it would have put on a spectacular nighttime show in the skies from mid December through the end of January. Some had even dubbed it "the Comet of the Century."
So now the big question: Will we be able to see ISON this winter after all? Battams has an answer that sounds a lot like I do trying to explain if it will snow in Seattle:
"We have no idea how big this nucleus is, if there is indeed one. If there is a nucleus, it is still too soon to tell how long it will survive. If it does survive for more than a few days, it is too soon to tell if the comet will be visible in the night sky. If it is visible in the night sky, it is too soon to say how bright it will be... I think you get the picture, yes?" Battams wrote.
He says they have a whole set of unknows, "and this ridiculous, crazy, dynamic and unpredictable object continues to amaze, astound and confuse us to no end. We ask that you please be patient with us for a couple of days as we analyze the data and try to work out what is happening. We realize that everyone now wants to know if it will be visible in the night sky, and how bright it might be. We really hate speculating right now but if someone were to force us into an answer, we would reluctantly say that at least some faint tail remnant should be visible in the coming week or so. But this is highly speculative so please don't take this too seriously just yet.
"This has unquestionably been the most extraordinary comet that (Colleague Matthew Knight) and I, and likely many other astronomers, have ever witnessed. The universe is an amazing place and it has just amazed us again. This story isn't over yet, so don't stray too far from your computer for the next couple of days!"
I know I'll be glued to their website!