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Comet ISON: What's in a Name?
Color image of two men and a large telescope.
ISON observers Artyom Novichonok and Vitali Nevski. Image Credit: Artyom Novichonok and Vitali Nevski.

Credit for Comet ISON's name goes to its discovers: Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novinchonok.

It bears the name of their night-sky survey program, the International Scientific Optical Network. ISON is a group of observatories in ten countries which have organized to detect, monitor, and track objects in space. The network is managed by the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The official International Astronomical Union name of the comet is C/2012 S1 (ISON). Here's how the name breaks down:

  • C indicates ISON is not expected to return to the inner solar system (even if it does survive its close brush with the sun's atmosphere in November 2013). Comets that are regular visitors such as Comet Halley are designated with P for periodic comets, meaning its orbital period is less than 200 years.
  • 2012 marks the year of discovery.
  • S designates the half month it was discovered in (last half of September)
  • 1 means it was the first discovered in that period.

The rest of the name is intended to give credit to the discoverer. For example, comet D/1993 F2 Shoemaker-Levy 9 (the one that spectacularly smashed into Jupiter in 1994) was so named because it was the ninth periodic comet discovered by Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker and David Levy.

Since robotic surveys and spacecraft are very effective at spotting comets, many comets have LINEAR, SOHO or WISE in their designations.

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Last Updated: 7 April 2014

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