US & World

'Time capsule' from solar system's birth likely vaporized by the sun

Comet ISON nears its apparently fatal encounter with the sun on Thursday.
Comet ISON nears its apparently fatal encounter with the sun on Thursday.

ISON, a huge comet formed at the birth of the solar system, apparently did not survive Thursday's encounter with the sun, NASA said. Scientists detected the comet last year and had hoped to continue studying it for information to be mined from its "primordial ices."

NASA tweeted: "Breaking up is hard to do. Like Icarus, #comet #ISON may have flown too close to the sun. We will continue to learn."

And the European Space Agency tweeted: "Our #SOHO scientists have confirmed, comet #IISON is gone. ..."

ISON's closest approach to the sun, called its perihelion, occurred at about 1:45 p.m. ET, when it got 724,000 miles from the sun's surface. (By comparison, Earth is almost 93 million miles from the sun.)

At 4:36 p.m. ET, the Associated Press reported:

"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, told AP that scientists might still be able to gain valuable knowledge from studying the remnants of the broken comet. "This is a time capsule looking back at the birth of the solar system," he said.

National Geographic had explained what ISON would experience on Thursday: "The comet has grown more than ten times brighter in recent days. As it plunges through the sun's outer atmosphere, the comet's icy nucleus will begin to experience intense gravitational forces and temperatures that reach as high as 5000 degrees Fahrenheit."

In September, NASA launched a balloon high into the atmosphere to study ISON, and explained its importance in a Q-and-A with Don Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office:

"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. It's been traveling from the outer edge of the solar system for about five-and-a-half million years to reach us in the inner solar system, and it's going to make an extremely close approach to the sun and hence could become very bright and possibly a very easy naked-eye object in early December."