Comet ISON Disintegrates in Sun Flyby, Disappointing Scientists

Skywatchers miss out on show in December as comet breaks up too soon.

ByABC News
November 28, 2013, 10:45 AM

Nov. 28, 2013 -- It great battle of "Fire vs. ISON," it seems Fire won.

The comet ISON, named after the International Scientific Optical Network that discovered it last year, made its closest approach to the sun today at 1:37 p.m. ET, and against all hope did not seem to make it out the other side.

(See NASA video of the comet fizzle away as it flies too close the sun

Karl Battams , a comet scientist for the Naval Research Laboratory, tweeted out this afternoon: "We see zero sign of a nucleus, which is not good."

During the end of a live NASA host Google+ Hangout to answer questions about ISON, solar physicist Alex Young said: "It's unfortunate that it doesn't appear that we'll see it."

"For whatever reason, we don't know right now, we may never know the reason why it just was not stable enough or perhaps the gravity from the sun (was the cause)," Young said. "The gravity is so strong that each ends experience is different than the other end and that just tears and rips and pulls at the comet and in this case, perhaps it just experienced so much stress that it broke apart and once it broke into its little pieces then they all melted much quicker and perhaps we lost it."

Even with the disintegration it still offered a glimpse into how comets interact with the sun's magnetic fields.

"We do have nice ways we can use these comets to study the sun, it's a probe of the sun that nature sends in very close to the sun and we don't have to worry about maintaining radio contact., or keeping it cool, we just watch what boils off," Dean Pesnell, a solar physicist and project scientist for SDO said during the Google Hang out. "Just the direction at first then maybe we can figure out how strong it is. That's pieces of info we can use to better understand how the sun makes a magnetic field."

Researchers were hoping that if the comet had survived, it could provide a glimpse into the edges of the solar system.

"It's coming from the very edge of our solar system, so it still retains the primordial ices from which it formed four and a half billion years ago," Don Yeomans, a senior research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, told ABC News before the fate of ION was sealed. "We're going to find out a great deal about what this comet is made of, and hence we are going to find out a great deal about what the solar system was like [back then]."

It would have also been a visual treat for skygazers come early December

"It could be tough enough to survive the passage of the sun and be a fairly bright naked-eye object in the early morning sky," he said. He added that the comet could also be pulled apart into several chunks by the sun's tidal forces and still make for a good show.

But Pesnell said that since they didn't see anything come out from the sun "the chances of it being bright enough" for onlookers is "quite small."

The comet's journey took it approximately 730,000 miles away from the sun's surface.