MANY THOUGHT IT WOULDN’T SURVIVE, but a comet discovered by an Australian amateur astronomer has zipped past the Sun at an extremely close distance and lived to tell the tale.
Comet Lovejoy was discovered by Terry Lovejoy (Queensland) on November 27. It quickly became clear that it was going to pass very close to the Sun, making it a Kreutz-class sungrazing comet.
In fact, at the time of closest approach, the distance between the comet and the Sun’s surface was only 140,000 kilometres—that’s only one-third of the distance between the Earth and the Moon!
So you can see why it wasn’t expected to survive. Comets are made of a mixture of ice, dust and rock, and are fairly fragile bodies. The intense heating experienced during a close encounter with the Sun is enough to make many sungrazing comets break apart and vaporise.
But not Comet Lovejoy! It went behind the Sun (as seen from Earth) and, as luck would have it, swung back into view even more spectacular than before.
Here are a couple of videos showing the close encounter. The first is from the STEREO spacecraft, and the second is the Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft…both of which continually monitor the Sun.
The view from space was just as spectacular. Aboard the International Space Station, mission commander Dan Burbank captured the scene from almost 400 kilometres up, calling it “the most amazing thing I have ever seen in space”. Here’s the video:
And here’s more of what he had to say about the view:
And here’s a short time-lapse of images taken at the European Southern Observatory’s Paranal site in Chile, showing what it looked like from a dark site on the ground.
Adapted from information issued by NASA / Dan Burbank / SDO / G. Blanchard (eso.org/~gblancha) / ESO / Y. Beletski.
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