Hubble may determine whether Comet ISON survived fiery trip

NASA scientists aren't sure if ISON still a comet or just a bunch of dust

After Comet ISON's tumultuous close approach to the sun on Thursday, scientists are working to determine whether it still exists or is now nothing more than dust.

The comet, which was first spotted in September 2012, quickly gained the attention of astronomers around the world because it was considered to be a relic from when our solar system was formed, retaining the primordial ices from which it formed 4.5 billion years ago.

Since ISON, thought to be made of rocks, dust and ice, was passing just 700,000 miles from the blazing surface of the sun, scientists had been eager to see if it could withstand the journey and come out on the other side to head back toward the far reaches of the solar system.

ISON time lapse
In this time lapse image, the Comet ISON moves in from the bottom right and heads toward the upper right, around the sun, becoming fainter as it goes. (Image: NASA)

NASA reported today that scientists still aren't sure what happened to ISON. It does appear that something made it around the sun, but whether it's enough to still be called a comet is unclear.

The Hubble Space Telescope is expected to be scientists' best chance to find out what remains of ISON when it makes observations in the comet's direction later this month.

"The question remains as to whether the bright spot seen moving away from the sun was simply debris, or whether a small nucleus of the original ball of ice was still there," NASA reported today. "Regardless, it is likely that it is now only dust."

ISON piqued scientists interest because it has been on a journey that is thought to have taken millions of years to get from the edge of the solar system to a point where it would pass our sun.

And since it's made up of dust and ice from when our solar system was formed, scientists hope that by studying it, they will gain clues to the ancient formation of the solar system and its planets.

"The reason we study comet ISON to begin with is it's a relic," Carey Lisse, a senior research scientist with Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said last week. "It's a dinosaur bone of solar system formation. You need comets in order to build the planets. This comet has been in a deep freeze half way to the next star for the last four and a half billion years. It's just been coming in over the last few millions years and possibly even started around the dawn of man."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at  @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is

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