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World/National News

November 28, 2013

Scientists: Sun-grazing comet likely broke up

STOCKHOLM (AP) — Once billed as the comet of the century, Comet ISON apparently was no match for the sun.

Scientists said images from NASA spacecraft showed the comet approaching for a slingshot around the sun on Thursday, but just a trail of dust coming out on the other end.

“It does seem like Comet ISON probably hasn’t survived this journey,” U.S. Navy solar researcher Karl Battams said in a Google+ hangout.

Phil Plait, an astronomer who runs the “Bad Astronomy” blog, agreed, saying “I don’t think the comet made it.”

Still, he said, it wouldn’t be all bad news if the 4.5-billion-year-old space rock broke up into pieces, because astronomers might be able to study them and learn more about comets.

“This is a time capsule looking back at the birth of the solar system,” he said.

The comet was two-thirds of a mile wide as it got within 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) of the sun, which in space terms basically means grazing it.

NASA solar physicist Alex Young said it would take a few hours to confirm ISON’s demise, but admitted things were not looking good.

He said the comet had been expected to show up in images from the Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft at around noon eastern time (1700 GMT), but almost four hours later there was “no sign of it whatsoever.”

“Maybe over the last couple of days it’s been breaking up,” Young told The Associated Press. “The nucleus could have been gone a day or so ago.”

Images from other spacecraft showed a light streak continuing past the sun, but Young said that was most likely a trail of dust continuing in the comet’s trajectory.

“The comet itself is definitely gone, but it looks like there is a trail of debris,” he said.

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