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UofL Planetarium Plans Party for Comet ISON


It may be the brightest comet in decades, but first it must survive a trip around the brightest, hottest star in our solar system.Comet ISON will pass the sun on Thanksgiving day and—if it doesn’t vaporize—will be visible to residents in the Northern Hemisphere throughout December. Comet ISON was discovered by Russian astronomers in September 2012, it is nearly a half-mile in diameter and traveling at a very high velocity. Tim Dowling, an expert on Comet ISON, said the comet’s velocity will propel it around the sun, past Earth and out of the solar system forever. “It’s coming in and going out and that’s it, it will never come back,” he said. In preparation for the impending comet, scientists at University of Louisville’s Gheens Science Hall and directors at Rauch Planetarium are hosting a family-friendly, holiday party at the planetarium on Dec. 7 from 1p.m. to 4p.m. to educate guests on the importance and history of comets.


The party will feature laser shows, snow cones, discussions on Comet ISON and photos of the comet from NASA satellites, if the comet survives.

  Dowling said the comet has a 50 percent chance of maintaining the trip around the sun.

The in-and-out orbit Comet ISON is displaying is known as a hyperbolic orbit. It is scientifically significant because its entrance into our solar system brings gases that have never been mixed with current chemicals and particles within the solar system, Dowling said. This comet was formed nearly 4.5 billion years ago, when the solar system was formed and Dowling said the gases emitting from the comet are, generally speaking, a menu of materials used to create the planets. “It’s big and pristine and unadulterated by the inner-solar system,” Dowling said. The chemical make-up of the comet will allow scientists and astronomers to gain a deeper understanding about the chemistry of the solar system before “everything started to turn on,” Dowling said. “It’s a window back in time,” he said. The comet will be passing by the sun at a distance of nearly one sun-diameter. For perspective, the earth is nearly 108 sun-diameters away from the sun. “For a very loose ball of dirty ice that is a really close encounter with the sun,” Dowling said. “The comet is already showing a little bit of activity where it’s looks like it’s not necessarily broken up, but it’s loosening up a bit as it’s going in.” If the comet does reach the skies of the Northern Hemisphere it will be best viewed with the naked eye or with binoculars. Dowling said high-powered telescopes are oftentimes too powerful to provide a complete perspective of bulky, fast moving comets. For best viewing, travel outside of the city to get away from lights and look up. Sky watchers should be able to locate the comet with a brief scan of the night sky on cloudless nights. Dowling said there will be several websites offering tracking information Tickets to the planetarium part are $5, for more information about the planetarium party, visit www.louisville.edu/planetarium or call 502-852-6665.

Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.