ISON Experiments – CIOC

At the Comet ISON Observing Campaign (CIOC) meeting in August 2013, some outstanding scientists led by Dr Mike Mumma of NASA Goddard Centre for Astrobiology, discuss their experiments for Nov/Dec 2013

Mumma mentioned that their studies have a population of 26 Comets. They have already identified 24 molecules. They are interested in comparing Kuiper Belt Comets (which move elliptically in the plane of the ecliptic) to Oort Cloud Comets (ISON).

The experiments will have the following overall objectives. 

The main points I took home : 

  • The level of sophistication of our scientists’ study is well beyond most peoples vision or comprehension
  • Water is already accepted as the pre-dominant “non organic volatile” 
  • Extensive experiments on 14 previous COMETS will be continued on ISON 
  • A “taxonomy” (ie classification system) is evolving for Comets. But I notice exoComets are not yet part of the planned taxonomy
  • ExoComets get a promising mention on one slide : The origins of Oort Cloud Comets is still uncertain – are they exoComets. I say “YES”. 
  • Finding “life” continues to be a challenge until NASA defines what are the biomarkers for life – expect paper in 2014 by NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay. Focus will continue to be looking for complex molecules required in DNA. 

ISON presents yet another opportunity to continue the relentless advance of human discoveries.

This one slide, showing the “paradigm changing items”, is probably enough detail for this BLOG. See the video to understand where we are in the actual realization that “Life IS a Cosmic Phenomenon”. 

They seem to have not considered the possibility that inbound hyperbolic comets like ISON might come from adjacent stars. It is only after the kind of event we saw yesterday (where ISON’s eccentricity dropped below “1.00”) that the SUN captures the COMET and traps it in an elliptical orbit of thousands of years. ISON’s orbit period is now 400,864 years 🙂 Sorry ISON. I will sadly not be around when you finally return 400,000 years from now.

To understand the “capture” (or non Capture) issue better, click here to see an explanation from JPL’s Dr Alan Chamberlin on why, even though “e” has just dipped below “1”, it is not correct to say that we’re witnessing the capture of comet ISON.

ISON Captured by SUN? Not necessarily

Sunday Nov. 24, 2013 : (Question to JPL) Dear Alan (Chamberlin) at JPL :  Is this statement accurate?  If not how would you reword it?

Big day for ISON yesterday. I noticed today the eccentricity dropped below “1.00”. Does this mean NASA is now calculating it is no longer on a hyperbolic orbit heading out of the solar system, but is now on an elliptical path? Today e is now .9999977109551715 with newly calculated orbit time of 400,864 years – ie Big News – Has ISON has been captured by the SUN and is now in a very long elliptical orbit. I suspect this is a historic moment when we have just seen an exo-COMET captured by our sun.

Monday Nov 25, 2013 : (Response from JPL) Hi Bill, The current orbit (51) for Comet ISON is represented as heliocentric osculating orbital elements at epoch 2013-Nov-04.  The eccentricity listed on our web-site (0.9999977109551715) has a formal uncertainty of 9.8317e-08 (i.e., on the order of 1e-7 1-sigma).  Note that this puts the eccentricity not very far away from 1.0. 

One important issue is that these elements are with respect to the Sun — not with respect to the solar system barycenter.  It is quite common to see comets with e slightly less than 1.0 with respect to the sun and e >= 1.0 with respect to the solar system barycenter.  The other important issue is to understand that these are osculating elements which effectively means they change with respect to the epoch used (i.e., they are representative of a conic orbit which just touches the actual orbit at that epoch and are handy for quick-and-dirty 2-body propagation).

If we look at the heliocentric osculating elements (specifically e) at other epochs, we see that e is greater than 1.0 except for epochs close to perihelion (i.e., the point at which the comet is closest to the sun), 2013-Nov-28.  See output below from Horizons. 

It’s important to be careful about saying too much based on osculating elements and it’s just as important to understand what they are.  I can only recommend you find some reference materials on the subject if you’re interested as I’m unable to give you a substantial primer.  It’s also important to take into account uncertainties in any object’s orbit.  

In any case, it’s not correct to say that we’re witnessing the capture of comet ISON. 

I hope this helps. With kind regards, 



Dr. Alan B. Chamberlin, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA 


Post Script

I believe Dr Chamberlain is helping us understand that JPL has currently “51” different sets of orbit parameters for ISON, taken over time . Each set are different – ie the orbit  subtly changes as the comet comes into the inner solar system and gets affected by the inner planets (esp Jupiter).  He points out “we see that “e” is greater than 1.0 except for epochs close to perihelion”. He even notes that although “e” is “< 1 in epoch 51, the “uncertainty parameter ” associated with “e” is sufficiently high to “put the eccentricity not very far away from 1.0″. In effect he is warning me that the orbit is still pretty much parabolic and we cannot draw the conclusion it has changed from “hyperbolic” to ” elliptical” (or that ISON has been captured). Within days, if it fragments and there are large clumps left, these may well become “elliptical” and be CAPTURED by the SUN.  BUT ISON has not been captured by the SUN YET.  i.e. it’s trajectory is still the same : it is heading around the sun and off through the Oort Cloud to another star.              


Log of Comet ISON Sightings

Cattle Point Urban Star Park, Oak Bay, Victoria, BC, Canada

Sunday Nov. 24, 2013  Big day for ISON yesterday. I noticed today the eccentricity dropped below 1. Does this mean NASA is now calculating it is no longer on a hyperbolic orbit heading out of the solar system, but is now on an elliptical path? See NASA JPL database. Today e is now .9999977109551715 with newly calculated orbit time of 400,864 years – ie Big News – ISON has been captured by the SUN and is now in a very long elliptical orbit. I suspect this is a historic moment when we have just seen an exo-COMET captured by our sun.

For next week as ISON passes the closest to sun on Thursday, we will not be able to see ISON from earth. BUT GOOD NEWS, as well as Hubble (in space) and ALMA (on earth) we have the amazing STEREO with its two space-based observatories – one ahead of Earth in its orbit, the other trailing behind. This is how we will “see” ISON during this key 7-4 days. If ISON does break up, during this time, STEREO should be able to show us how it looks during and after the disintegration. This is worth looking at – CIOC (NASA’s Comet Ison Observing Campaign).  

The CIOC Team

Metchosin, Victoria, BC, Canada

Saturday Nov. 23, 2013 :  This morning sighting of ISON in BC, Canada was a tough one. All I used was my 15X70 binoculars. It was well below the level of Mercury and even Saturn had risen above the level of the cloud band hugging the ocean before I could see it. It was past 0630. The core was clear but the coma was very faint and no tail was visible. By 0645 the comet was no longer visible but I was able to be sure of the correct area because there were still a couple of stars visible in the field. Then to the far west of the binoculars FOV a bright, slow moving satellite drifted into the field. I tracked it until it faded out. While I was doing this I thought that it was so bright it must be the International Space Station. Checking the NASA site when I got home confirmed it probably was. Cool, the ISS passed right through the same FOV as the comet even though I couldn’t see it.  Well, that’s it for sure until sometime in early December…..Maybe? 

Friday Nov. 22, 2013 : Although I will give it one last shot tomorrow this morning was probably the last chance for our latitude to be able to observe the so called “Comet of the Century”. I was back at Taylor beach again 15X70 binoculars and 6 inch dobsonian in tow. There was some haze but by about 0615 hrs Mercury had risen enough above the thick haze to think about having a go at it. The comet was just visible with the binoculars due to the brightening sky and haze. Still, thinking about the conditions I feel it is brighter than the day before so I switch to the scope. It didn’t take long to sweep it up and very low power. I switch to an eyepiece that gave60X magnification and a 1.66º FOV. Although no tail was visible a nice bright core and fainter outer halo showed. At that point the couple that I have seen daily walking the beach came by so I showed them the comet. Then before I packed up we all had to leave for work, I gave them a quick show of the Moon and Jupiter. 

So will this be the last we see of this comet or will it survive the Sun? As it will now be dipped below the horizon I guess in a week or so we will know the answer. As I was about to depart the beach I balance my old cheapo point and shoot digital camera on the tsunami zone sine and snapped this parting shot at around 0635 hrs. I’ve marked Spica, Mercury and the comet. Blown up it actually shows a dot in the circle. 

I will be back at the beach for one more try Saturday morning but I’m not holding my breath on seeing it. Then again, you won’t know unless you give it a go. Bill Weir, in Metchosin, Victoria. BC, Canada

Friday Nov 22 Cattle Point Urban Star Park, Victoria, BC : 

Bill Smith :  HERE IS COMET ISON. With my naked eye. Yesterday with cloud on horizon over Seattle, two clear white streaks could be seen but I thought it just could not be ISON with my naked eye and such cloud. Well right now FRIDAY morning with a beautiful sunrise (with sun still below horizon) at 07:13 am, there is COMET ISON across the Salish Sea towards Seattle as seen from Victoria. Exact same place as yesterday – memories of Hale-Bopp came back. The streaks are exactly where you would predict they would be – and yes – there are two enormous streaks way longer than I expected, due to sun shining on the two (at least two) long tails – the Devil’s Horns. Bill Smith in Oak Bay, BC

The comet is right in the centre. This was taken with a 2 year old LG Smartphone and so does not show ISON too well. But for me this is a very personal moment I want to document. I ask you to believe that with the human eye the two tails were clearly visible.

NASA Stereo : STEREO consists of two space-based observatories – one ahead of Earth in its orbit, the other trailing behind. With this new pair of viewpoints, scientists will be able to see the structure and evolution of solar storms as they blast from the Sun and move out through space. Stereo focuses on Comet ISON. 

Thursday Nov 21, Victoria, BC : 

Bill Smith : Excellent 1 hour show on PBS last night – “Comet (ISON) Encounter”. Try to see it. Early this morning from Cattle Point Urban Star Park looking ESE down to Seattle from Victoria. Clear skys except on horizon. Through clouds two clear white streaks could be seen but I think at least one of these was perhaps from the moon behind the sunrising sky. Not confident either was ISON. Bill Smith in Oak Bay, BC

Bill Weir : I arrived at Taylor Beach again around 0550. This time along with my 15X70 binoculars I also had my 6 inch dobsonian telescope. Unfortunately a thin cloud bank hung over the Strait in precisely the area of the sky I needed clear. I got a very short break as the cloud drifted and made another observation with the binoculars. The tail and coma of the comet looked exactly as they did the day before but the core was noticeably brighter. Then the clouds snapped shut and I was shut out from then on. I did set up the 6 inch but never got to observe the comet with it. I waited until 0645 then had to head to work.

Now here’s the rant. All the hype by the media (which is started by the scientific community) about the comet really bugs me. While I was sitting waiting for the clouds to drift two cars drove up. One had a 60+ish couple and the other contained a young dad with his three young children who were all for sure under 10. All were there to see the comet. They all seemed to be under the impression that all they had to do was get out of the car and there emblazoned across the sky would be the “Naked Eye, Comet of the Century”. I unfortunately was left with the task of breaking their bubble.  At least before they left I was able to give a condensed lesson on comets and the kids I was able to show a very sharp view of Jupiter with my 6 inch scope as the seeing was excellent. I also left them with the reassurance that if it was clear the next morning at that time they would be able to find me sitting in the open back of my Forester observing the comet. Bill Weir, in Metchosin, Victoria. BC, Canada

Wednesday Nov 20 Victoria, BC :  I got up earlier than normal so I could drive to Taylor beach and check out ISON. All I used was my 15X70 binos on a tripod. The comet (located to the southwest of halfway between Spica and Mercury) showed nicely with a strong nucleus, small but defined coma and a long thin tail. Very pretty. Knowing  exactly where to look I could just make it out naked eye against a rapidly brightening sky. Bill Weir, in Metchosin, Victoria. BC, Canada

Tuesday Nov 19 : ISON today. 2013 11 19 UT. naked eye: faint 4.2.. no visible. Dr. Salvador Aguirre

Tuesday Nov 19  Victoria, BC : This morning a new acronym came into my life, “A hag”. It stands for Always have asto gear. I’ll explain. At 0650 hrs while driving towards Victoria on highway 1  while at around Portage Inlet I was admiring the beautiful clear sky above a dark band of clouds when I noticed a little tiny white dot. I thought, Mercury how nice. Then it was MERCURY, that’s the area of the sky I need for ISON. It was actually not all that hard while driving in morning traffic to every once in a while locate Mercury and not be a traffic hazard.  I also took note regularly of features to the clouds below Mercury. Eventually I made it to Mayfair Mall and pulled into the upper parking lot. This is where being A hag guy comes in. In my car I have three pairs of binoculars (10X40, 10X50 and 15X70). I also have a PST (Solar scope) and camera tripod. I also like to leave the 15X70s at focus for the Moon so they are closer to focused on infinity for spotting stuff in a bright sky. With only a tiny bit of sweeping, because I had noted the cloud pattern I was able to pick up Mercury with the binoculars and then naked eye again. With Mercury in the south east, Mars close to the meridian and the Moon off in the west I had my ecliptic path. With this chart  I knew comet ISON was just a few degrees to the SE of Spica. I also knew that Spica lies just south of the ecliptic.  With the 15X70 binoculars I started to slowly trace a line towards Mars and it wasn’t long before I picked up the tiny spark of light from the core of the comet. At first I thought it could be the 1st magnitude Spica but I continued on my westward scan and soon came to a much brighter white dot, Spica. I moved the binoculars back to the south east and settled again upon the tiny faint glimmer of the comet. No coma, no tail but still a sighting, and from the reasonably bright sky at 0705 hrs PST. I’m happy. If the sky is clear tomorrow morning I think I’ll be getting up a little earlier. This is why it never hurts to be “A hag”. Bill Weir

Charles Banville :  Location Unknown : I used a 135mm lens on my DSLR to locate the comet. Once I located it I switched to a 400mm lens. The moon was extremely bright and I did not see the comet with my unaided eyes. Charles Banville.

Friday Nov 15, 2013 : Yes, I saw it and Lovejoy last Friday morning, Nov. 15th, locating them easily with 12×63 binoculars, then with the naked-eye with difficulty.  Both were about 5th magnitude. Starry Skies, George W Gilba

Please provide your locations : 

Comet ISON – Material for Students

In celebration of this event (hyperbolic, sun-grazer) which occurs only once or twice a century, I have put together a FREE eBook called “COMET ISON”. It presents some unique perspectives which should give students a broader understanding of COMETS and especially these rarer HYPERBOLIC sun-grazing comets like ISON.

In Summary, the material is freely offered for students to use in any papers they are writing.

The FREE eBook asks 9 basic questions :  

  1. Is ISON a long period comet on a hyperbolic orbit?
  2. Is ISON from the Milky Way Galaxy whereas typical short period comets like Halley, are from the Sagittarius Galaxy like our sun (+ its planets, comets and asteroids)?
  3. Will ISON explode and generate the most amazing tail visible to the naked eye in December and January? (28 Nov 2013 – looks like it has disintegrated). No sign yet of material coming round the Sun. 
  4. Will particles be blown on the solar wind to Earth and affect satellite communications or the Northern Lights? 
  5. Will ISON deliver to Earth’s atmosphere a set of new viruses and bacteria as predicted by the Panspermia Hypothesis? 
  6. Are massive hyperbolic exocomets like ISON the source of the earth’s water? 
  7. How lucky are we that earth was not on the trajectory of ISON? 
  8. Will we ever be able to detect, track and divert such hyperbolic comets?
  9. What experiments are planned over the next 2-12 months? Detection of complex molecules (even life itself?)

Click here to download and enjoy this FREE eBook.

William E. Smith November 2013

It is made available under the “Creative Commons” philosophy.