A leading Queen's University Belfast astronomer featured in the BBC's Horizon programme in November, in an episode devoted to a very special comet in the sky above Northern Ireland.
In Comet of the Century: A Horizon Special on BBC 2 at 9.15pm on Saturday 23rd November, Professor Alan Fitzsimmons explained why comet ISON is so important to science, and how it was hoped it would appear to sky watchers in early December.
Professor Fitzsimmons, said: “Comet ISON was discovered last year, and astronomers quickly realised that it was a one-of-a-kind comet. It has never been around the Sun before, but on November 28th it passed just over a million km above its surface. The intense heat will hopefully reveal aspects about comets we have never before discovered.”
Scientists around the world are training telescopes on the comet. When closest to the Sun, it will probably be was invisible to optical telescopes on Earth, but it was followed by an armada of spacecraft observatories.
Professor Fitzsimmons, added: “The intense heat when it was closest to the Sun next week caused much of the surface to evaporate away into space, causing it to grow very bright and allowing us to study its make-up and structure. However, the comet could not come anywhere near to Earth so it is fainter than it otherwise would be.”
Professor Fitzsimmons studies comets and asteroids in the Astrophysics Research Centre at Queen's. He was recently on the island of La Palma, filming the final programme of the BBC's Sky at Night before it restarts in Spring next year, and hoping for one last look at the comet before it rounds the Sun.
Comet ISON had been hyped as a potential “Comet of the Century”. It only become bright enough to be seen in the pre-dawn sky during mid-November, with a tail millions of kilometres long.
It was hoped that In the first week of December the comet would reappear low-down in the sky before sunrise. However the ferocious heat from the Sun caused the comet to completely disintegrate.
Professor Fitzsimmons, said: “We didn't know if the comet would survive. Everyone is just waiting and hoping for a great comet in our sky, it looks like we'll have to wait another few years.”
Further information on the work of Queen's Astrophysics Research Centre can be found online at http://star.pst.qub.ac.uk/
Professor Fitzsimmons at the Observatario del Roque de los Muchachos on la Palma, during his comet observations.
Text by QUB Communications office