Image: Comet ISON
NASA
This still from a NASA video identifies comet C/2012 S1 (ISON), better known as Comet ISON, in a telescope image.
updated 1/24/2013 5:49:05 PM ET 2013-01-24T22:49:05

The newly discovered Comet ISON is just a faint speck in the sky right now, but later this year, when it flies closer to the sun, it could shine as bright as the moon and may even be visible in broad daylight, scientists say.

"Comet ISON is a sungrazer," comet-tracker Karl Battams of the U.S. Naval Research Lab said in a NASA statement. "The orbit of the comet will bring it very close to the sun, which we know can be a spectacular thing."

That apparition, if Comet ISON delivers on its promise, is expected to peak in late November. While some astronomers a have touted ISON as a potential "Comet of the Century," there is still some uncertainty on how bright the object will actually become, according to scientists with NASA and other observatories.

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Officially known as C/2012 S1 (ISON), Comet ISON is currently near the orbit of Jupiter, though astronomers say it is already quite bright for an object so far away. Its exceptional glow suggests that it has a fairly large nucleus in the 0.6- to 6-mile (1- to 10-kilometer) range, estimated astronomer Matthew Knight of the Lowell Observatory, according to NASA. [Photos of Comet ISON in Night Sky]

Russian astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok discovered the comet in September 2012 using a 15.7-inch (0.4-meter) reflecting telescope of the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON), near Kislovodsk. They predicted that at its closest point to the sun, which occurs on Nov. 28, 2013, the comet will come within 800,000 miles (1.2 million km) of the sun's surface and could transform into a dazzling night sky object with a long, dusty tail.

But that's only if the Comet ISON manages to survive its fiery flyby — it could be destroyed by tidal forces or solar radiation as it approaches the sun, scientists say.

"I'm old enough to remember the last 'Comet of the Century,'" said Don Yeomans of NASA Near-Earth Object Program. Yeomans was referring to a distant comet named Kohoutek that promised to put on such a show in 1973, but turned out to be a bust. "It fizzled. Comets are notoriously unpredictable."

Knight, however, noted that an object smaller than C/2012 S1, Comet Lovejoy, put on a stunning display after it soared through the sun's atmosphere in 2011 and emerged intact on the other side.

"Comet ISON is probably at least twice as big as Comet Lovejoy and will pass a bit farther from the sun's surface" Knight said. "This would seem to favor Comet ISON surviving and ultimately putting on a good show."

Another possibility, astronomers said, is that Comet ISON could break apart, which could give it an appearance akin to a cosmic string of pearls when viewed through a telescope. Yeomans assured that such a scenario would not pose a threat to Earth.

"Comet ISON is not on a collision course," he said. "If it breaks up, the fragments would continue along the same safe trajectory as the original comet."

Editor's note: If you have an amazing picture of Comet ISON or any other night sky view that you'd like to share for a possible story or image gallery, send photos, comments and your name and location to managing editor Tariq Malik at spacephotos@space.com.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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