Segments in this Video

November, 2013 (01:19)


A city-sized chunk of ice and rock hurtles toward the sun. Astronomers around the world track Comet ISON.

September 21, 2012 (03:16)

Astronomers around the world locate a small point of light, Comet ISON. It lies almost 600 million miles away and is as big as a city. Scientists amassed an advanced armada to study the comet.

Harbingers of Doom (02:13)

Francisco Diego discusses historical reactions to comets. He quotes 16th century astronomy perceptions.

Comets, Portents of War? (01:55)

Francisco Diego discusses the Bayeux Tapestry and the conquest of the Aztec Empire.

February 15, 2013 (01:03)

Cameras capture a chunk of rock hurtling towards Chelyabinsk, Russia. The meteorite disintegrates but the shockwave shatters windows, injuring over 1,000 people.

First Line of Defense (03:33)

Comet ISON is approximately a half mile across. Gareth Williams gathers observation information to calculate ISON's orbit and determine if it will reach Earth.

November 28, 2013 (02:19)

ISON is a sun grazing comet. Astronomer Karl Battams reflects on the possible consequences.

January, 2013 (01:44)

ISON is almost 500 million miles from the sun. Astronomer Carey Lisse determines the comet's origin by its orbit.

ISON's Origin (01:36)

Astronomer Amy Mainzer uses sugar to explain the formation of planets and the Oort cloud: ISON is rock and ice leftover from the solar system's formation.

Galaxies are Not Static (01:44)

ISON speeds closer to the sun. Lisse explains what sent the comet tumbling out of the Oort cloud.

April 10, 2013 (03:09)

Comet ISON reaches Jupiter's orbit. Bonnie Meinke explains what she has learned about ISON from Hubble Space Telescope images; see a sublimation demonstration.

ISON's Elements (02:56)

Experts estimate how bright ISON will become. Learn what happens to the comet as it warms up. Every gas permits a unique line pattern. See a demonstration of spectroscopy.

Spectroscopy (02:39)

Lewis Dartnell discusses comet chemical profiles; he creates a "comet." Comet ISON contains the chemistry that existed when our solar system formed.

Isaac Newton's "Principia" (03:04)

Comets helped prove gravity is a force that holds the universe together. Science historian Patricia Fara discusses the 1680 comet that captured Newton's attention.

Scientific Collaboration (04:31)

Edmond Halley used mathematics to explain the motions of planets and comets. Newton proved their orbits were ellipses. Halley predicted the return of a comet in 1758.

Halley's Comet Returns in 1910 (01:23)

Astronomers predicted the comet would come close to the Earth and contaminate the atmosphere with cyanogen.

Spring, 1997 (01:28)

Comet Haleā€“Bopp triggered a series of sinister events in San Diego. See video footage of the Heaven's Gate cult; members commit mass suicide.

October 2, 2013 (03:12)

ISON is within 200 million miles of the sun. Adam McKay uses spectroscopy to observe the comet's coma; observations suggest ISON's nucleus is gushing water vapor.

Organic Compounds in Comets (02:52)

Dartnell considers the possibility that Earth's water came from comets. An average sized comet carries millions of tons of water; comets also carry molecules necessary for life.

November 28, 2013 (02:54)

See three possible scenarios of ISON's encounter with the sun. Experts attempt to observe the comet with the Mcmath-Pierce Solar Telescope.

Coronagraph (02:42)

Battam explains solar images captured with the SOHO satellite. See Comet ISON enter the solar atmosphere.

Death of a Comet? (02:45)

Experts examine Comet ISON images captured with a coronagraph on the SOHO satellite; part of ISON has survived the sun's atmosphere.

Credits: Comet Encounter (00:40)

Credits: Comet Encounter

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This program follows scientists on the trail of the once-in-lifetime Comet ISON and explores our cultural obsession with these celestial visitors. Comets have fascinated, even terrified us for thousands of years. Traditionally seen as harbingers of doom, they can influence some people even to this day. For scientists, comets are a great opportunity. This year a particularly massive chunk of ice and rock is hurtling our way. When Comet ISON races past us toward the sun it should develop a tail that will light up the skies brighter than a full moon. Then the comet will slingshot around the back of the sun and could emerge brighter than ever, treating the entire northern hemisphere to an unforgettable sight.

Length: 55 minutes

Item#: BVL58625

Copyright date: ©2013

Closed Captioned

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