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Could Comet ISON Still Become the 'Comet of the Ce …

UK astronomer Pete Lawrence took this image of Comet ISON in the early hours of Sept. 15, 2013, usin …

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Could Comet ISON Still Become the 'Comet of the Ce …

The sun-approaching Comet ISON floats against a seemingly infinite backdrop of numerous galaxies and …

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Could Comet ISON Still Become the 'Comet of the Ce …

This NASA Hubble Space Telescope image of Comet ISON was taken on April 10, 2013, when the comet was …

akes its closest approach to the sun.With just two months to go before Comet ISON skims within about three-quarters of a million miles (1 million kilometers) above the sun’s surface, it’s still uncertain whether the comet will evolve into a stunningly bright object that will put on a memorable show in December, or turn out to be nothing more than a dim fuzz ball.The comet was masked by the glare of the sun for much of the summer and began to emerge into darker skies in mid-August. [Photos of Comet ISON: A Potentially Great Comet]Because the comet’s brightening had seemed to stall during the first half of this year, there was hope that once it reappeared, it would look significantly brighter. It was, indeed, brighter, yet not as bright as many had hoped. In fact, the comet was running about two magnitudes — or six times fainter — than forecasts had originally suggested.Sizzle or fizzle?

This new information has spawned two camps anticipating ISON’s future performance: those who think ISON will be a major disappointment and those who are still holding on to the hope that ISON will become a bright naked-eye spectacle.

Astronomer Bruce Gary was the first to photograph ISON after it emerged from the glare of the rising sun on Aug. 12, and belongs to the first camp. According to Gary’s calculations, the comet might not get much brighter than fifth or sixth magnitude, which is near the threshold of naked-eye visibility.

„I’ve begun to lose interest in this comet, which may never become visible to the unaided eye,” Gary said. „I wonder why someone ever suggested that it could become the ‘comet of the century.'”

On the other hand, astronomer Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C. has issued a more sanguine outlook.

„Certainly, we would love it to be a couple of magnitudes brighter right now, but it’s doing just fine,” Battams said. „I’d say it’s still on course to become a very eye-catching object.”

Slowly brightening

Earlier in September, based on a consensus of visual observations made by reputable observers, Comet ISON appeared as bright as 13th magnitude — still more than 600 times fainter than the dimmest star that can be perceived with the naked eye.

Through large telescopes, the comet’s head (called a coma) appeared about 1/30 the apparent size of the moon.  [Comet ISON’s Path Through the Inner Solar System (Video)]

Over the last few weeks, the comet has nearly doubled in brightness to about magnitude 12.

Denis Buczynski, secretary of the British Astronomical Association’s comet section, photographed ISON in a somewhat hazy sky on the morning of Sept. 26.

„ISON seems to show some evidence of gas tail/streamers in my images north of the head,” Buczynski wrote in a description. „The comet is beginning to look quite active now.”

The view from Mars

More time and more observations will be needed to get a better handle on exactly how bright Comet ISON will get. Some of those observations will truly be out of this world: Scientists will observe the comet from Earth, and rovers on Mars and spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet will have a great view of the celestial showcase.

On Tuesday, (Oct. 1), the comet will pass just 6.5 million miles (10.5 million km) above the Martian surface.

Researchers aren’t sure whether Mars rover Curiosity will be able to capture images of the comet from the surface of Mars — that will depend on how bright ISON is as it makes its closest pass to the Red Planet.

According to astronomer Carey Lisse of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Maryland, the best bet for observation will be NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The MRO satellite is equipped with a powerful half-meter (1.5 feet) telescope named HiRISE that is capable of detecting ISON’s fuzzy coma and tail. HiRISE will be turned toward the comet on Oct 1 and 2.

In addition, an unprecedented 16 other NASA spacecraft observe the comet as it heads sunward. The astronauts on board the International Space Station will be watching, too.

Finally revving up?

Buczynski’s observations may also suggest that ISON is in the process of crossing the so-called „frost line,” where heat from the sun starts to vaporize the frozen water of the comet.

Up to 90 percent of the volatile material in a typical comet are water ice. Carbon dioxide and other gases are likely behind the relatively little brightening of Comet ISON. But if ISON crosses the frost line in the coming days, „the whole comet could erupt in geysers of gas,” Lisse said.

Moment of truth-The moment of truth will come on the U.S.’ Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 28), when the comet will graze the sun’s surface.Don’t forget: ISON is, after all, a chunk of material that has spent thousands of years in the depths of deep space, where temperatures barely hover above absolute zero (minus 459.7 degrees Fahrenheit or minus 273.2 degrees Celsius). For eons, the comet has been „soaking up the cold,” so to speak. But on Nov. 28, ISON will be moving through the sun’s outer atmosphere, where it will be subjected to temperatures in excess of 1 million degrees F (555,538 degrees C). This extreme heat could cause the comet’s 3-mile-wide (4.8 km) nucleus to break apart into several pieces — much like what could happen when you pour hot tea into a cold cup.All hope for the comet is not lost, however. The fracturing process could release a fresh stream of dust into space that could translate into a spectacularly long and bright tail in early December. It could also cause the comet’s brightness to suddenly spike.But it is still possible that the comet could disintegrate.Comet Lovejoy did just that in December 2011, but only after it passed the sun. Lovejoy eventually evolved into a celestial showpiece, and disappeared a few weeks later. ISON could also disintegrate before it reaches the sun, but at least one expert does not think that will happen.Astronomer John Bortle, a highly reputable comet observer, thinks „ISON appears likely to survive the in-bound leg of its journey all the way to the sun.””It will probably brighten more slowly than all the early hype led the public to believe,” Bortle said. „Nevertheless, Comet ISON should very briefly become exceptionally bright, at least rivaling the planet Venus in the hours preceding its closest approach to the sun.”In the coming days and weeks, we’ll likely have a better idea of what Comet ISON. Stay tuned to SPACE.com for future updates.Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York’s Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmer’s Almanac and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, N.Y. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on SPACE.com.

2nd Phase of Gulf Oil Spill Trial ResumesGulf Oil Spill TrialView gallery9 photos   Gerald Herbert September 29, 2013 6:00 PM Top kill. Junk shot. Cofferdam. Top hat. Capping stack. Those terms, obscure industry jargon before BP’s massive 2010 oil spill, became familiar buzzwords as the company scrambled to find a way to plug its blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico.More than three years later, the methods that BP employed during its 86-day struggle to stop the gusher will be the focus of a trial resuming Monday in the high-stakes litigation spawned by the nation’s worst offshore oil spill.Reporting by Michael Kunzelman, the Associated Press.

Jaw-Dropping Milky Way Galaxy View Wins Astronomy Photographer of the YearSPACE.comby Elizabeth Howell, SPACE.com Contributor 7 hours agoJaw-Dropping Milky Way Galaxy View Wins Astronomy Photographer of the YearView gallery The central regions of the Milky Way Galaxy, 26,000 light years away, appear as a tangle of dust and  An Australian space photographer has won top spot in a global space photography competition, with a spectacular „star-riddled” photo of the Milky Way galaxy, a jaw-dropping image beat out more than 1,200 other entrants in this year’s Astronomy Photographer of the Year contest by the U.K.’s Royal Observatory Greenwich and National Maritime Museum.Mark Gee’s photo shows the galaxy stretching across the sky at Cape Palliser, New Zealand – accompanied by a beam from a lighthouse. In fact, his camera gear was at the top of the lighthouse when he decided to take this shot, requiring him to climb 250-plus steps to reach the equipment and bring it back to the location he wanted. You can see Gee’s spectacular image and more winning entries in SPACE.com’s 2013 Astronomy Photography of the Year gallery, courtesy of the Royal Observatory Greenwich.”By the time I got back, the sky was beginning to get lighter with sunrise two hours away,” Gee wrote in his contest entry on Flickr. „I took a wide pano made up of 20 individual images to get this shot. Stitching it together was a challenge, but the result was worth it!””I love the tranquil combination of sea and sky in this beautiful image, along with the comforting human element of the cliff-top lighthouse,” stated Marek Kukula, a competition judge as well as the Royal Observatory’s public astronomer. „This view from the shores of New Zealand makes me think of the long voyages the Maori’s ancestors made into unchartered oceans, guided by the stars. We’re in a similar situation today, as we set out to explore the universe.”Pictures of the northern lights (by Norway’s Fredrik Broms), a total solar eclipse (China’s Man-To Hui) and the transit of Venus (Britain’s Sam Cornwell) were among other photos the judges singled out for attention.The top photos in the contest are on display at the Royal Observatory Greenwich (near London) until February. The winners will also be published in a book commemorating the competition. The space photography contest, now in its fifth year, is run by both the observatory and BBC Sky at Night Magazine.The Royal Observatory Greenwich will display the winning space photos in a free exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in London. The exhibition opened on Sept. 19 and runs through Feb. 23, 2014. For more information on the exhibition, visit: http://www.rmg.co.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/astronomy-photographer-of-the-year/exhibition/Follow Elizabeth Howell @howellspace. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on SPACE.com.

NASA’s New Moon Probe Begins Final Leg of Lunar TrekSPACE.comby Miriam Kramer, Staff Writer 5 hours agoNASA's New Moon Probe Begins Final Leg of Lunar TrekView gallery Artist’s concept of NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft in orbit NASA’s newest lunar probe is gearing up to begin the final phase of its month-long trek to the moon.The space agency’s LADEE moon dust spacecraft is in its third and final orbit around Earth before moving to the moon, and everything is looking good. The lunar probe launched into space on Sept. 6 to begin its circuitous route to the moon.LADEE’s second burn, designed to take it into a high elliptical orbit, was so „perfect” that the third maneuver planned to take the probe into an even higher orbit will not be necessary, NASA officials wrote in a mission update on Sept. 27. The loveseat-sized probe will make its final close flyby of Earth Tuesday (Oct. 1).After its last close approach, „LADEE will travel to the point at which it will be captured around the moon using an initial Lunar Orbit Insertion (LOI-1) burn of the onboard main engine,” Butler Hine, LADEE project manager, wrote. „After that, LADEE will be in lunar orbit.”LADEE’s  name is pronounced „laddie” and is short for the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer. Since the probe began orbiting Earth, scientists on the ground have successfully tested the spacecraft’s three science instruments and laser communications experiment. The spacecraft’s antenna that will be used to send information to the ground is also functioning well. LADEE is expected to transfer into lunar orbit on Oct. 6.The healthy instruments will be responsible for investigating some long-standing mysteries about the moon’s thin atmosphere and strange dust when it is expected to enter the into moon’s orbit on Oct. 6.The thin atmosphere of the moon represents the most common known kind of atmosphere in the solar system, NASA scientists have said. By understanding the composition of the moon’s atmosphere, researchers might be able to more accurately classify the atmospheres of large asteroids, many moon and even small planets like Mercury.LADEE is also designed to look into a strange glow Apollo astronauts saw on the horizon of the moon before sunrise. The glow may have been created by small dust particles lofted high into the lunar atmosphere, and data collected by LADEE could help scientists nail down an answer to that moon conundrumFThe $280 million LADEE mission launched to the moon atop the first flight of a Minotaur V rocket booster on Sept. 6 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. Once in orbit around the moon, LADEE is expected to perform 100 days of science.ollow Miriam Kramer @mirikramer and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on SPACE.com.

Tornado hits Washington State

Workers with Woodland Industries Tree Experts work to clear trees that fell earlier in the day when a tornado moved through the Frederickson neighborhood near Puyallup, Wash., Monday, Sept. 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)View gallery10 photo   Ted S. Warren 13 hours agoA rare tornado damaged industrial buildings south of Seattle as an unseasonable September storm dumped record amounts of rain and temporarily knocked out power for thousands in the Pacific Northwest.The tornado at 7:20 a.m. Monday hit the industrial area of Frederickson, tearing a hole in the roof of the Northwest Door factory, blowing out car windows at a nearby Boeing factory, and damaging a building where sections of a downtown Seattle tunnel project were being assembled. (AP)

25 Awesome Places Closed By the Government ShutdownBy Becky Kellogg Published: Oct 1, 2013, 1:12 PM EDT weather.com Mount Rushmore – South Dakota

Mount Rushmore - South Dakota

Three million people visit Mount Rushmore each year to see the impressive stone carvings of four U.S. presidents. (Creative Commons/Dean Franklin)
 Mount Rushmore - South DakotaVietnam Veterans Memorial - Washington D.C. Alcatraz Island - San FranciscoStatue of Liberty - New YorkOld Faithful - WyomingCarlsbad Caverns – New Mexico  Hawaii Volcanoes National Park The federal government is shut down until further notice, as of Oct. 1, 2013. This comes after Congress stalled a temporary funding bill in a long-running fight over President Barack Obama’s health care law. Because 80,000 government workers must stay home from work, many federal programs and service are closed, including hundreds of national parks. Millions of people visit our national parks each year, putting money into the economy.  Here are just a few of the great places that will be off limits across the nation until the government reopens.MORE ON WEATHER.COM: Beauty in the Pacific NorthwestPlay Video
OverlayClimber Makes SHOCKING Find

Colorado Rock Slide Kills 5 Hikers P. Solomon Banda Published: Oct 1, 2013, 8:33 AM EDT Associated PressOverlayClimber Makes SHOCKING Find

Autoplay BUENA VISTA, Colo. — The bodies of five hikers killed by a rock slide of car-sized boulders are set to be removed today, a day after the accident. A teenage girl was left with a broken leg and other injuries.The Monday morning slide demolished a popular beginners trail below one of Colorado’s most photographed mountains. It sent 100-ton boulders onto a viewing area that displays Agnes Vaille falls in Chalk Creek Canyon below Mount Princeton, a 14,197-foot peak.The teenager was rescued and flown to a Denver hospital. There was no immediate identification of the victims.Witnesses said some of the boulders were the size of cars.Rescuers planned to wait until this afternoon to remove the bodies of the five who were killed, said Chaffee County department spokeswoman Monica Broaddus. Engineers from the nearby Climax molybdenum mine were headed to the site to advise on safely getting the bodies out.The recovery was called off Monday evening because rocks continued to shift when the coroner counted the fatalities, Broaddus said.”The conditions are considered unstable,” she said.(MORE: Outdoor Safety)Play VideoOverlayFull Force Nature: Rock slide
A female hiker who heard the slide ran down the trail and called for help, said Chaffee County Undersheriff John Spezze.The area had a rainy summer and a recent snowfall, he said. It was too soon to know whether the weather prompted the slide, which left a football-field-sized gash in the mountainside, he said.”It was totally unexpected. It caught everybody by surprise,” Spezze said.The trail is one of the first hikes recommended to people new to the area and is also popular with tourists, said Margaret Dean, a regular hiker who has hiked the trail with her 7-year-old grandson.Dean, a copy assistant at The Mountain Mail newspaper in Salida, said the trail is easily accessible and provides a view of the falls and the Chalk Creek Valley in the Collegiate Peaks, which contains many mountains more than 14,000 feet tall.(WATCH: Floods: Why Colorado?)Agnes Vaille, the waterfall’s namesake, was a Denver mountaineer who died in 1925 while attempting a difficult winter climb of Longs Peak, elevation 14,259 feet.The U.S. Forest Service maintains the trail. Spezze said officials have asked the Forest Service for a permanent closure.The Forest Service says the trail gets medium to heavy usage. The trailhead lies across from Chalk Lake campground and is near the St. Elmo ghost town, a popular stop for tourists in Colorado’s central mountains.MORE ON WEATHER.COM: The World’s Tallest Mountains

 The Himalayan mountain range of Annapurna and Mount Machhapuchre rises behind the tree line in the popular tourist destination of Pokhara on Oct. 13 2010. (Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images)