Feisty Comet Lovejoy Survives Close Encounter with the Sun

by Nancy Atkinson on December 16, 2011

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It’s the morning after for the sungrazing Comet Lovejoy, and this feisty comet has scientists shaking their heads in disbelief. “I don’t know where to begin,” wrote Karl Battams, from the Naval Research Laboratory, who curates the Sun-grazing comets webpage. “What an extraordinary 24hrs! I suppose the first thing to say is this: I was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. And I have never been so happy to be wrong!”

Many experts were predicting Comet Lovejoy would not survive perihelion, where it came within about 120,000 km from the Sun. But some extraordinary videos by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory showed the comet entering and then surprisingly exiting the Sun’s atmosphere. Battams said he envisioned that if the comet survived at all, what would be left would be just a very diffuse component that would endure maybe a few hours after its close encounter with the Sun. But somehow it survived, even after enduring the several million-degree solar corona for nearly an hour. However, Comet Lovejoy appears to have lost its tail, as you can see in the image below.

An image received on Dec. 16th from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory confirm that Comet Lovejoy survived perihelion and is now receding from the Sun. Credit: NASA, notations by Karl Battams.

The comet is now in the view of other spacecraft, which will continue monitoring the object. It will likely grow a “new” tail as outgassing of dust, gas and debris will continue. It is not known yet how much of Comet Lovejoy’s core remains — which was 200 meters in diameter earlier this week — or how long it will continue to stay together after its close brush with the Sun.

But we’ll keep you posted!

See more videos of Lovejoy’s survival below:

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Anonymous December 16, 2011 at 2:51 PM

It was really cool to see all these ‘real-time’ news of the event. I keep refreshing my browser just to make sure I will not miss anything! Awesome 24hrs indeed!

Anonymous December 16, 2011 at 3:56 PM

The article doesn’t say how close it came to the sun. Does anyone know? I would have imagined that if it was too close, the intense gravity of the sun would have torn it to shreds.

Anonymous December 16, 2011 at 4:10 PM

Good point — I’ve added to the article that it was projected to come within about 120,000 km of the Sun.

Anonymous December 16, 2011 at 6:06 PM

Thanks

Charles Wesley December 16, 2011 at 5:20 PM

It DID say. 120000KM . READ the article, you can’t miss it. That’s pretty darn close. it’s around 72000 miles. So, less than 3 Earth Circumferences .. or about 9 Diameters. Or consider it as less than 1 Jovian Diameter.

Anonymous December 16, 2011 at 6:06 PM

It DIDNT say when I first READ the article. It was added later. No need to be rude about it.

Anonymous December 16, 2011 at 6:21 PM

Any word on the return trajectory, will it be a bright comet, visible where and when,,,,,,

Anonymous December 16, 2011 at 7:41 PM

Are we 100% sure this wasn’t Rama?

Anonymous December 17, 2011 at 5:43 PM

I simulated using astrograv.
It’s closets point would have been at 822,339 from the centre so about 126,339 km.
Its speed would have been 568.198 km/s

(Astrograv uses 1 AU = 149,597,870,700 meters
And Sun mass = 1.98891694291212*10^30 kg (the wikipedia number is rounded of)

So it seems that is speeded faster than Elenin and probably stayed much less time in the hot zone.

Hamish Campbell December 18, 2011 at 3:41 AM

Good morning and thank you for the video’s
Although the “the comet has lost its tail” statement has me confused
For the last forty years I have been working under the assumption that a comets tail was the product of solar wind
And that the tail always faces away from the sun
Now after watching the vid’s ( more than once)
Am now correct in the view that as a comet passes through the solar atmosphere the tail becomes more of a contrail
Therefore as the comet moves further away from the sun its “normal ” tail will reappear again streaming away from the solar wind
Just asking just a sky watcher ( and endlessly curious )
H

brafax December 19, 2011 at 5:41 AM

Does anybody know if the comet is names after the Simpsons’ character Reverend Lovejoy?

Anonymous December 19, 2011 at 6:47 PM

Feisty “snowball” indeed.

Denver Cayetano December 24, 2011 at 12:58 AM

Now I see what I’ve been missing by not checking my email……COMPLETE AWESOMENESS glad I caught this…..

From Belize
Denver. C

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