Comet ISON may have survived its close encounter with the sun

The plight of the spectacular comet ISON has been a tortured one—did it or didn’t it disintegrate when it neared the sun?

Astronomers had high hopes that the sun-grazing comet would whiz around the sun and boomerang back out of our solar system, providing marvelous early-morning viewing opportunities visible to the naked eye. But that depended on the comet surviving its close encounter with the sun.

Thanksgiving afternoon, scientists were ready to declare ISON a goner. Accounts of a Google+ hangout in which astronomers debated the fate of the comet sounded a lot like a wake.

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‘‘It does seem like Comet ISON probably hasn’t survived this journey,’’ U.S. Navy solar researcher Karl Battams said, according to an Associated Press story.

Now, on closer inspection, NASA thinks the comet may have survived. Images taken from solar observatories show a bright spot re-emerging, after the comet initially disappeared from view.

These images show what appears to be the comet ISON after its close encounter -- a white smear heading up and away from the sun.

“The question remains whether it is merely debris from the comet, or if some portion of the comet’s nucleus survived, but late-night analysis from scientists with NASA’s Comet ISON Observing Campaign suggest that there is at least a small nucleus intact,” NASA wrote in a statement.

That means there is hope for viewing opportunities in the coming days. The magazine Sky and Telescope has a wonderful viewing guide, showing where in the east-southeast sky to look for the comet in the half-hour before dawn—if it has, indeed, survived. For updates on the status of the comet, check out their coverage here.