Washington Post: Comet ISON, if it survives trip around the sun, could bring spectacular sky show

Comet ISON’s fate fuels speculation about its origins.

As Thanksgiving Day in the USA approached, telescopic eyes were on the skies to see what would happen as Comet ISON reached its closest approach to the sun. Already ISON had revealed itself to the naked eye, but not as freely as hoped. Would its perihelion—much closer to the sun than Mercury’s orbit—bring it to a fate like that of the mythological Icarus who, flying too close to the sun, melted his waxy wings? Or would its sun-grazing course leave it to blaze in beauty and brighten our early December Christmas season skies?

IsonComet ISON shines beautifully in this five-minute exposure taken at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center on November 8, 2013 at 5:40 a.m. EST. Comet ISON was 97 million miles from earth at the time. As Comet ISON approached the sun, it became visible to the naked eye or with a good pair of binoculars. Image: Associated Press/NASA through FoxNews

The Comet ISON Show—To Be Or Not To Be?

Because sun-grazers like Comet ISON closely approach the fiery heat of our sun, they can put on a great one-time show, so long as they survive to sizzle for us at a time and place when we can watch. Much of their ice melts as they graze the sun, producing a magnificent tail of dust and gas visible from earth. Discovered on September 21, 2012, by astronomers at Russia’s International Scientific Optical Network observatory, the comet C/2012 S2 (ISON) was already streaking toward our sun and gathering speed. Its path brought it to within 730,000 miles of the sun at a speed of 828,000 miles per hour as it swung around it on November 28.1

As observations accumulated in the months of Comet ISON’s approach, predictions as to the comet’s imminent fate ranged across the board. Some expected ISON to be “a once-in-a-civilization’s-lifetime event.” It has been wistfully dubbed the “Comet of the Century” in hopes it would rival the spectacular Great Comet of 1680. Others feared that its size—smaller than originally thought—and unfortunate and unexpected faintness by summer’s end boded ill for its chances at surviving its approach to the sun with enough sputtering ice to produce the greatest show on earth.

Commenting hopefully before the Thanksgiving Day of the Comet, NASA’s Jim Green said, “On Friday, we’ll all be delighted to see its beautiful face as it then comes around the sun. Then between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it will fly over the North Pole—a very nice holiday comet. ISON is very special. What makes it different is where it comes from—the further reaches of the sun’s gravity.”2

Comet ISON is a newcomer to our solar system. Its orbital path has brought it into the solar system for a close encounter with our sun. Scientists hope to study the materials vaporized off of it to learn more about the composition of the matter in space. And of course everyone would like to see ISON put on a great show after it swings around the sun. The show will only go on, however, if the comet survives its perilous trip around the sun.

“The surface is going to be vaporizing furiously, and that's going to release a lot of interesting material that hopefully we can study,” commented U.S. Naval Research Laboratory astrophysicist Karl Battams as the ISON approached. “At any moment it could fall apart, it could fizzle out, big chunks could break off.”3

Initially, many Thanksgiving Day observers feared the comet had disintegrated during the solar slingshot. The nucleus seemed shrunken and the trail of debris increased. But after several hours the classic comet appearance showed up in images being captured at several observatories. Longtime Sky & Telescope comet writer John Bortle summed up the impressions of many when he noted the comet’s “huge and ongoing dust release in a broad range of particle sizes” was “a very hopeful sign for visual observers in days to come.”4 Only time will tell how much of the comet survived and what sort of show it will be putting on.

Comet ISON’s Observable Journey

Comet ISON’s approach was followed from vantage points terrestrial and celestial—even the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Mercury-orbiting Messenger—as telescopes and cameras were directed at ISON from every available angle. “Every spacecraft that has a camera, we're turning on it,” said NASA’s John Grunsfeld as NASA prepared for the big event. Would it have its tail ripped off by a storm of electrically charged particles in a coronal mass ejection anticipated to interact with it just a day before perihelion?5 Would its swing around the sun reduce it to an insignificant rock6 flying around in space? “Comets tend to be delicate,” said Adam Block of the University of Arizona’s Mount Lemmon Sky-Center as ISON approached, “so it may actually break up.” But the many observational platforms did indeed, as Block said, make it possible to “watch the whole thing unfold.”2

Whatever Comet ISON’s fate, by the second week of December the Maven spacecraft en route to Mars will have its cameras in position to check it out whether earth-bound eyes are getting a great show or not. “Whether we’ll see a comet, comet bits or the last wisps of comet vapor,” says Nick Schneider, who manages Maven’s camera, “whatever happens, it’s bound to be interesting.”1

Once Comet ISON burns out its beauty in evaporating dust, water, and carbon dioxide, any remaining unspectacular rocky remnant of its nucleus may continue on its long orbital path, but it will not approach earth. Some secular cosmologists today suppose that water from comets like this supplied up to 40% of the water on earth. “At one time secular scientists thought that water had existed on earth from the time that the earth formed billions of years ago. But theories today suggest that the early earth lost much of its water, so much of the earth’s water had to come from somewhere else,” astronomer Dr. Danny Faulkner of Answers in Genesis explains. “Since comets contain so much water, evolutionary scientists think that much of earth’s water came from impacts of comets with earth.”7

Comet ISON’s Unobservable Origins

Now that Comet ISON has passed its perihelion, tomorrow (Sunday, December 1st) will likely offer the first post-perihelion opportunity for folks to catch a glimpse of it from their backyards. You can find out where to look for the best chance of seeing the comet yourself and safety precautions to avoid endangering your vision as you try to get your own once-in-a-lifetime look at “Latest Updates on Comet ISON” in Sky and Telescope. The dramatic effect of the sun on Comet ISON should point our attention to the fact that comets present a major problem for evolutionary cosmologists and all who insist the universe is billions of years old. Comets simply cannot survive for millions of years.

Modern technology has allowed us to observe this sun-grazer during most of its journey from the time it was first observed in September 2012 beyond Jupiter’s orbit, more than 6 AU (astronomical units, the average distance between earth and the sun) away, until now. But reported in most media reports about ISON are authoritative pronouncements not only about its observable journey but also about its unobservable origins.

NASA’s Jim Green noted that ISON is special because of the time and distance it traveled to get to our solar system. But did ISON really travel a million years or more to reach our sun from the Oort cloud at the furthest reaches of our sun’s gravitational field? Actually the Oort cloud, like Peter Pan’s Neverland, has never been observed. The Oort cloud was imagined to provide a birthplace for new comets, since comets like ISON could not exist in a billions-of-years-old universe without some renewable source. The Oort cloud is thus a convenient fiction, but a fiction nonetheless.

The Oort cloud was hypothesized as a birthplace for long-period comets like ISON, for if the solar system were really as old as currently conventional cosmology claims, such comets would have fizzled long ago. The ne’er-been-observed Oort cloud is supposed to be located at the outer reaches of our sun’s gravitational influence.

Concerning the claims about the Oort cloud, Dr. Faulkner says:

This sun-grazer comet has an orbit that's virtually parabolic, as near as we can tell. That means that its orbital path extends very far out from the sun, which, if the Oort cloud exists, would be in the region of the Oort cloud. However, more than 25 years ago the late Carl Sagan observed that there is no direct evidence that the Oort cloud exists. The situation hasn't changed since then.

Killing Comets

“Astronomers think that a comet has a small nucleus only a few miles across. The nucleus is made of various ices (frozen water, but other frozen substances, such as carbon dioxide and ammonia) with small bits of solid dark material that we call dust,” Dr. Faulkner explains. “For years astronomers have called these dirty snow balls, but now some astronomers have taken to calling them icy dirtballs. When the nucleus passes very close to the sun once each orbit, the sun’s heat evaporates much of the ice and frees the dust to form the comet’s head and tail. The sun’s radiation causes the gas and dust to glow.”

Comets like ISON, in reality, are evidence for a young universe. As Dr. Faulkner recently explained, a number of things happen to efficiently kill comets like this:

As a sun-grazer, Comet ISON will lose a massive amount of material as it passes close to the sun. This will cause the comet to brighten tremendously, but it comes at a cost: after enough orbits Comet ISON eventually will lose so much matter that it won’t brighten anymore.

In addition to gradually wearing out, two more catastrophic loss mechanisms can ravage comets. First, as comets pass close to the major planets (especially the gas giant Jupiter), the gravity of those planets can alter comet orbits. When this happens, half the time the comet orbit decreases in size and orbital period, which causes the comet to wear out even faster. But the other half of the time comets have their orbits increased. Sometimes the increase can lead to ejection from the solar system, never to return. Astronomers have observed comet ejection a number of times.

Second, comets occasionally collide with planets, thus abruptly ending their existence. We observed this for the first time in 1994 when Comet Shoemaker-Levi IX slammed into Jupiter.

No New Comets

Scientists have observed the demise of comets, and indeed whenever over the centuries humans have observed a comet blazing away they have been observing its death, if only by degrees. Eventually, comets run out of ice and die. So where could new comets come from? That’s the problem evolutionists have. Dr. Faulkner explains:

With these efficient loss mechanisms, it is clear that we should not see any comets at all, if the solar system is billions of years old. So, for more than 60 years many astronomers have offered two hypothetical sources to replace older comets as they die.

There are two types of comets: long-period comets and short-period comets. As the names suggest, the two groups generally differ by the lengths of their orbital periods (200 years is the dividing line), though there are other more fundamental differences. Long-period comets supposedly come from the Oort cloud, a hypothetical spherical cloud of comet nuclei orbiting very far from the sun. The gravity of an occasional passing star is supposed to rob the comet nuclei of energy so that they fall into the inner solar system where we can see them. Short-period comets supposedly come from the Kuiper belt, a flatter distribution of comets just beyond the orbit of Neptune. Gravitational tugs from the outer planets are thought to bring these comets into the inner solar system.

We’ve never seen the Oort cloud, and we likely never will. So there’s zero observational evidence that the Oort cloud exists. Astronomers have found many objects beyond the orbit of Neptune, about where the Kuiper belt is supposed to be. But it isn’t clear that this actually is the Kuiper belt, because these objects have a different composition than comets.

Evolutionary scientists have to assume that both the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud exist because otherwise comets—and the universe—are much younger than the supposed billions of years. But if the solar system is only thousands of years old, as God’s Word clearly teaches, there is no problem.

Evidence for a Young Universe

“Creationist astronomers think that just a few thousand years ago God created comets pretty much as they exist today.” Dr. Faulkner says. “Evolutionary astronomers think that comets, along with the solar system, are billions of years old, far too old for there to be comets today. To explain comets today, evolutionists must believe that comets that we see were stored in the Oort cloud and Kuiper belt until very recently.”

So while technology continues to show us how comets die, it fails to reveal the origin of comets in a billions-of-years-old universe. Imagination may look far away and see solutions like an Oort cloud to solve the long-age problem, but science and technology never have. Just because the Oort cloud gets mentioned as if it is an observed place in the media and even in some of my favorite science fiction novels, doesn’t make it real. The Word of God, however, provides an eyewitness account of God’s creation of the universe about 6,000 years ago. And what astronomers actually observe is, not surprisingly, perfectly consistent with what we would expect from reading God’s Word.

And Don’t Miss . . .

  • This past week we discussed the many differences—and reasons for them—between animals and humans, examined some not-so-primordial-looking slime, and we hope you, like us, enjoyed our many blessings and gave thanks to our great God.
  • Next week, we’ll see what some crocodiles use those nasty teeth to eat and discuss just how old the super-salty water under Chesapeake Bay’s impact crater may be. And who knows what else will be in the News?

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