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6-Minute Rocket Launch Aims to See Promising Comet ISON Tuesday

Comet ISON Seen From Hereford, AZ
Amateur astronomer Bruce Gary captured this view of the brightening Comet ISON on Nov. 14, 2013, from Hereford, Ariz. (Image credit: Bruce Gary)

Update for Nov. 19: A faulty valve forced scientists to delay the Nov. 19 launch of the FORTIS rocket to observe Comet ISON. Liftoff is now targeted for Wednesday, Nov. 20, at 6:30 a.m. EST.

A small rocket designed to spy galaxies billions of light-years from Earth will gaze at the brightening Comet ISON during a brief launch on Tuesday (Nov. 19) to track the icy wanderer as it speeds through the inner solar system.

The NASA-sponsored FORTIS rocket launch is set to blast off at 6:30 a.m. EST (1130 GMT) on Tuesday from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in its bid to spot Comet ISON. The mission's launch window lasts about 15 minutes and will send the suborbital FORTIS rocket 60 miles (97 kilometers) above the Earth's surface, far enough outside the atmosphere to get a good look at Comet ISON just before it disappears behind the sun. Total flight time: just six minutes.

The small FORTIS rocket slated to launch on Nov. 19, 2013 to observe the composition of Comet ISON in a six-minute launch from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. (Image credit: Stephan McCandliss)

After the FORTIS rocket first launched in May to study distant galaxies, its mission team soon realized the rocket could also be used to seek out carbon monoxide, oxygen, hydrogen and other elements on Comet ISON, which is headed for a super-close encounter with the sun on Nov. 28. On that day, Thanksgiving Day in the United States, the sungrazing comet will be just 730,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) from the sun. [Comet ISON: 8 Essential & Weird Facts]

"We knew we were going to rebuild the instrument and fly it again, regardless — it was just a question of how fast," Stephan McCandliss, FORTIS principal investigator at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said in a statement.  "When our proposal to use FORTIS to look at ISON in November was accepted, we started working our tails off."

The FORTIS rocket — its name is short for Far-ultraviolet Off Rowland-circle Telescope for Imaging and Spectroscopy — will observe Comet ISON's sublimation (the process of evaporating from a solid to a gas) as the comet jets close to the sun. Using a spectrograph, the experiment will be able to measure the intensity of different wavelengths of light emitted during this process, which will, in turn, show how quickly atoms are changing.

McCandliss said his team is ready to fly.

"We are excited that the plan has all come together, especially consider the state the experiment was in  five months ago after the last launch where we had a pretty rough touch down that required a rebuilding of the aft portion of the optical bench," he told in an email from the launch site.

Comet ISON has been a much-anticipated comet among professional and amateur astronomers because of its potential to become a dazzling night sky object during its visit to the inner solar system. However, its brightness will partially depend on how well it survives its closest approach to the sun on Nov. 28.

Currently, Comet ISON is visible the unaided eye (or naked eye) in the pre-dawn sky, and is especially brilliant in binoculars and telescopes. The comet is officially designated C/2012 S1 (ISON), with ISON standing for International Scientific Optical Network. It was discovered in September 2012 —when it was 585 million miles (941 million km) away, well outside the orbit of Jupiter — by Russian amateur astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok and has been tracked by stargazers, professional astronomers and spacecraft ever since.

Editor's note: If you snap an amazing picture of Comet ISON, Comet Lovejoy or any other night sky view that you'd like to share for a possible story or image gallery, send photos, comments and your name and location to managing editor Tariq Malik at

You can follow the latest Comet ISON news, photos and video on

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is pursuing a Ph.D. part-time in aerospace sciences (University of North Dakota) after completing an M.Sc. (space studies) at the same institution. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @HowellSpace.