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Hubble's Last Look at Comet ISON Before Perihelion

As of mid-November, ISON is officially upon us. Using Hubble, we've taken our closest look yet at the innermost region of the comet, where geysers of sublimating ice are fueling a spectacular tail.

Made from observations on November 2nd, the image combines pictures of ISON taken through blue and red filters. As we expect, the round coma around ISON's nucleus is blue and the tail has a redder hue. Ice and gas in the coma reflect blue light from the Sun, while dust grains in the tail reflect more red light than blue light. This is the most color separation we've seen so far in ISON -- that's because the comet, nearer than ever to the Sun, is brighter and more structured than ever before.

We've certainly come a long way since Hubble started observing Comet ISON, way back in April. Of course, our eight-month retrospective pales in comparison with ISON's own journey, which started some 10,000 years ago in the Oort cloud. ISON will come closest to the Sun on November 28, a point in its orbit known as perihelion.

What's remarkable here is that the entire ISON, this awesome, shimmery space tadpole, is being produced from a dusty ball of ice estimated to be a few kilometers in diameter. Compared to ISON's full extent, Hubble's latest image is tiny. It only shows the very base of the tail. Yet even in this closest closeup we've ever had, a single pixel spans 24 km across the comet.

Now that Comet ISON is close, amateur astromers rule the day. But Hubble observations, including this latest image, are still providing key insights into the science and spectacle of a comet we hope will continue to impress.

Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)