'Comet of the Century' Could Create a Strange 'Meteor Shower' with Cosmic Dust
The "comet of the century" is coming closer, and it could create a new, unusual type of meteor shower as scientists gear up to observe the phenomenon. Known as Comet ISON, the cosmic missile will streak across our skies this fall and has the potential to be one of the brightest ever seen.
Currently, scientists are working to loft observation gear by balloon in order to see the fast-approaching comet. The project, called the Balloon Rapid Response for ISON (BRRISON), will be able to get high-quality views of the missile and hopefully shows that important planetary science questions can be aided through the use of balloon missions.
How exactly will the balloon be able to take images of the comet? A large, helium-filled balloon carrying a telescope and other observation equipment will be launched from Earth. It will soar about 23 miles above the surface of our planet where it will take images of the passing comet. It will only make observations for one day before returning to the ground.
"You can compete with the Hubble Space Telescope for getting sharp images, but at a tiny fraction of the cost," said Eliot Young, BRRISON team member, in an interview with Space.com.
Although most believe that Comet ISON will be a spectacular sight, there is the chance that the comet will fizzle as it approaches Earth. Like all comets, ISON is made up of frozen gases mixed with dust. How bright the comet is largely depends on evaporation rates and how quickly it sheds its dust and water. Already, NASA scientists have studied how much the three-mile-long comet is currently shedding--about 112,000 pounds of dust and 130 pounds of water every minute.
Yet this dust is what may really spark the interest of scientists. It's possible that when ISON passes by Earth, it could create a meteor shows composed of the dust that it sheds from its tail. Instead of burning up in a flash of light, though, these "meteors" will drift gently down to the Earth below. Although people on the ground likely won't be able to see the phenomenon, other observation equipment will probably be able to catch the show.
"Don't expect to notice," said NASA officials in a press release. "The invisible rain of comet dust, if it occurs, would be very slow. It can take months or even years for fine dust to settle out of the high atmosphere."
The Comet ISON is set to streak by at the end of November and will be its closest to Earth on November 28th. Observers should be able to see the phenomenon with their naked eye.