A composite image of Comet ISON, taken from the Hubble Space Telescope. (Source: NASA)
It has been quite some time since a comet captured the imagination of many people, especially one that was actually passing by. Come to think, it was well over a decade since said comets captured the imagination. The 1990s had a series of comets that made news: Shoemaker-Levy 9, which crashed into Jupiter and left a significant mark for months in 1994; Hyakutake, which came incredibly close to our planet in 1996; and Hale-Bopp, whose luminosity made it visible to everyone, and led to conspiracy theories and cultists going off the deep end in 1997. But since that time, the only thing comet-related that was of significance was NASA's Stardust and Deep Impact missions that encountered comets, the latter of which sent a probe into one.
Now, a new comet, one that will likely take on the title of the Great Comet of 2013, has even been given the title of "Comet of the Century" by astronomers. Comet ISON, discovered in September of last year by astronomers in the Caucasus in Russia, is a comet coming from the Oort cloud, a vast expanse of space outside the solar system filled with icy rocks and comets. Based on its current trajectory and approach, it seems like this is a relatively new comet. Astronomers this year sought out Comet ISON, and managed to take photos using the Hubble Space Telescope earlier this year. NASA and the ESA have posted the Comet ISON photos today, including the composite photo seen above.
In what is likely to be the first major comet of note in the age of social media, expect Twitter and Facebook feeds should expect to light up over Comet ISON later this year, when the comet enters the inner solar system to go around the sun. Then, it is possible that the comet's brightness will be that of a full moon, possibly making it visible to the naked eye. However, astronomers caution against hyping over the comet too much: As a celestial body, comets are difficult to predict in terms of behavior, and it is well with in the realm of possibility that the comet will weaken as it approaches the sun. Still, the possibility of a great comet is exciting astronomers everywhere.