July 2, 2013 at 6:26 PM ET
The Hubble Space Telescope's science team has put Comet ISON's fireworks into motion as a preview for what many hope will become the "comet of the century" five months from now.
The time-lapse movie shows a sequence of observations captured by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 over the course of 43 minutes on May 8, when ISON was 403 million miles (650 million kilometers) from Earth, between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars. During that time, the comet traveled 34,000 miles in its course toward the sun.
The video condenses 43 minutes' worth of motion into a repeated 5-second clip. The Hubble Heritage Team released the imagery to celebrate the Fourth of July, but in reality, these fireworks are ice-cold: The tail is a stream of gas and dust escaping from Comet ISON's nucleus.
The next month or so is a good time for ISON-watchers to take a vacation and enjoy the Fourth's fireworks, because the comet's position in the sky is too close to the sun to make for good viewing. Although it's too dim to be seen with the naked eye, astronomers are hoping that the comet will be significantly brighter when it's observable again in August.
Uncertainty about ISON
There's a lot of uncertainty surrounding ISON's fate — in part because it's thought to be coming into the inner solar system for the first time from the Oort Cloud, the huge reservoir of cometary material that lies hundreds of billions of miles away. What's more, ISON's orbital track is due to bring it only 685,000 miles (1.1 million kilometers) away from the sun in late November, which means it qualifies as a "sungrazer."
The comet, which was discovered just last year, could break up and fizzle out during its solar encounter, like Comet Elenin did in 2011. But if ISON survives, it could brighten into a real beaut, like another sungrazer called Comet Lovejoy.
"Comet ISON is still very far away, and thus it remains difficult to predict exactly how bright the comet will become in November. However, there does exist the potential for this to be one of the brightest comets of the past century," the NASA Comet ISON Observing Campaign, or CIOC, says on its brand-new website, ISONCampaign.org.
Website on watch
Even if ISON doesn't live up to skywatchers' high expectations, astronomers around the world will be keeping close watch — and sharing their insights via ISONCampaign.org.
"The existence of this website and the CIOC does not mean that we will get a 'Comet of the Century,' or even a moderately bright comet," campaign organizer Karl Battams writes. "The purpose of this whole CIOC exercise is that there exists the possibility of obtaining some unprecedented science, and we are not going to sit idly by simply because we have no promises of what we'll learn."
More about Comet ISON:
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.