How the Comet Lost Its Tail

An entrancing lesson in the power of the coronal mass ejection
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Right now, Comet ISON is streaking towards the sun, and astronomers anticipate it will pass through our star's atmosphere tomorrow. 

What they're not-so-secretly hoping is that ISON will meet the same fate as 2007's Comet Encke did: getting blasted by a coronal mass ejection (CME).

"I would absolutely love to see Comet ISON get hit by a big CME," said Karl Battams, an astronomer at the Naval Research Lab, in a NASA story. "It won't hurt the comet, but it would give us a chance to study extreme interactions with the comet's tail."

What kind of interactions? Well, firstly, the CME ripping the comet's tail off.

Take a look at that GIF up there. That's Encke getting hit. The CME comes from the right of the frame like a soft (plasma) mist, but when it reaches the comet: Zoink! There goes the tail. 

If ISON gets hit, astronomers aren't sure what will happen. The sun is much more active than it was during Encke's visit, and ISON will be much closer to the star. They are practically giddy about the possibility of seeing a more intense comet-CME collision. As am I. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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