Lovejoy lives!

By Phil Plait | December 16, 2011 7:00 am

Comet Lovejoy was only discovered in late November, but it’s had quite a ride. It was quickly determined to be a Sun-grazer, the kind of comet that plunges down very close to the Sun in its orbit. The date of this solar close encounter: yesterday!

That’s a shot of it using SOHO, a solar observatory orbiting the Sun. The Sun itself is blocked by a mask, and the white circle represents its outline. The comet is obvious enough! The line through the top of it is not real; that’s called blooming and it happens sometimes when a bright object is seen by a digital detector. The electrons in the chip overflow the pixels and leak into adjacent ones. The comet got very bright as it neared the Sun, almost as bright as Venus! This picture, taken on December 15th at 22:36 UT, was shortly before closest approach: a mere 180,000 km (110,000 miles) from the Sun’s searing surface.

Amazingly, after the comet screamed past the Sun, and to the surprise of many, it survived. A lot of comets don’t make it through such an event, but this one did. Here’s a video of the comet reappearing from behind the Sun, as seen by SDO; watch closely or you’ll miss it!

Nifty. But on the way down it had several interesting things happen to it. It had a companion (scroll down to December 14, 19:00 UT for the short video and tip on how to see the very faint second comet), for one. For another, it developed two distinct tails, which happens in comets fairly often. One is made of dust — ground up rock, essentially — and the other gas that gets ionized as it’s stripped off by the solar wind.

My favorite video shows the comet approaching the Sun as seen by STEREO; a special processing technique was used involving subtracting successive frames in the sequence, which eliminates the bright background and leaves sharper objects like stars and comets… and ripples in the solar wind. Watch as the comet moves toward the Sun, and see the tail wiggle as changes in the density of the solar wind buffet the beleaguered traveler:

Isn’t that cool? And how long do you think it’ll take some person with, um, odd sensibilities to use this video to claim the comet is alive, and some sort of cosmic spermatozoa?

But if you’d rather stick to facts — because c’mon, this is pretty amazing stuff already – then check out the fun Geeked on Goddard blog (and follow them on Twitter), as well as the Sungrazer website for more info on this scrappy little comet.

Image credit: NASA/SOHO

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (27)

  1. Chris

    That’s not a comet. It’s the Destiny recharging itself. :-)

    I was following the SDO news yesterday. That has to be one of the (ahem) coolest things I have ever seen. You forgot to mention it can be seen in SOHO again, although it appears to have lost its tail.

  2. Brian

    Somebody check to see if there are any humpback whales missing.

  3. Chris

    @2 Brian
    LOL. Although since it came out the other side the time warp didn’t work.

  4. OneofNone

    Don’t you recognize it?
    Check the first picture. Clearly it is the returning star of Bethlehem, just one year early.

    Very nice picture and video ;-)

  5. Wzrd1

    I wonder how much mass was lost to evaporation and solar erosion?
    At such proximity to the sun, I seriously doubt that it remained solid, most likely, the rocks and dust melted and the volatiles vaporized and were removed by the intense solar wind, leaving it as a permantently tailless comet.
    But, the view must have been magnificant!

  6. Slingshot maneuver finished, the “comet” is now in the late 20th Century.

  7. Paul

    At least no one decided to “shed their containers” this time.

  8. Chris

    @5 Wzrd1
    If you look at the latest SOHO images the tail has returned. So why did the tail disappear really close, but reappear farther out?

  9. WJM

    @5. If the rocks and dust and volatiles are gone… what’s left?

  10. Wzrd1

    @10 WJM, I didn’t say that the rocks and dust were gone, only melted.
    @9 Chris, thanks, I’ll have to look at the latest images, can’t right this moment, as I’m working. But, in a bit… :)
    Astounding that any volatiles remain after such intense heating!

  11. Rob

    The tail was pointed *away* from us, on the other side of the mass of the comet. It was aligned such that we couldn’t see it.

  12. ColinB

    Oh lord – apparently it only survived because of the cross (the camera bleeding).

    Facepalm…

    http://raptureintheairnow.com/news-you-can-use/comet-lovejoy-survives-the-sun-because-of-the-cross#.TuuVKyNAb20

  13. Chris

    #13 ColinB

    The Onion is satirical and not to be taken seriously. Oh wait, that’s real? If you thought that was crazy check this out
    http://www.luciferianliberationfront.org/borg.html

  14. Ganzy

    Wow, that was sweet! Lovejoy was really shifting through the gears on it’s outbound journey. What would it’s velocity have been relative to a stationary observer watching the comet whizz past?

    Why is there an apparent distortion of the comets path as it emerges from the far side of the sun. Is it something to do with the reflected light from the comets tail interacting with the chromosphere/intense magnetic fields near the sun’s surface?

    How is it possible for Lovejoy to accelerate to such great speed through it’s passage around the sun and not be ripped apart by – I don’t know the terminology for the forces that it must be under? centrifugal?.. I thought they were mostly dirty ice balls, sort of.

  15. David M

    Is that Sagitta at around 4:30 in the SOHO photo? Looks like a familiar site from the summer skies.

  16. HvP

    Chris said, “Although since it came out the other side the time warp didn’t work.”

    You’re not thinking fourth-dimensionally!

    It came out the other side because its return trip, plotted to return it to the exact time from which it originally left, did in fact work.

  17. psuedonymous

    I’d like to point to my comment on the previous story about Lovejoy (http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2011/12/04/amateur-astronomer-discovers-sungrazing-comet/#comment-450513) as to why this news absolutely terrifies me. I can take some solace that Lovejoy retained enough ice mass to produce a detectable tail, but that may not apply to a rockier cometary mass.

  18. But Phil, why isn’t the blooming causing a vertical line?

  19. Anchor

    Headline on NASA’s Science News:

    “Comet Lovejoy Plunges into the Sun … and Survives”

    The following teaser in the first sentence provides more zing:

    “Sungrazing Comet Lovejoy has shocked astronomers by surviving its “death plunge” into the sun.”

    SpaceDotCom, no stranger to selecting the baton of hype over the lever of correction, in their zeal to outdo the competition, of course, amps the volume up to a screaming 11:

    “Comet Lovejoy Survives Fiery Plunge Through Sun, NASA Says”

    Ah yes. “INTO the Sun” > becomes > “THROUGH the Sun”. Inevitably the foul emmanation from the graveyard of the credulous and crackpot alike – people encouraged to think that a comet has speared right THROUGH the Sun’s INTERIOR – are erupting like so many zombies.

    Rampant stupidity is once more on the swell, gurgling out of the dank ground, and its getting pretty deep again. Be very, very afraid…

    I’ve already encountered the first waves. People under the impression that a “comet” (of which, incidently, they have no idea what it is, or how large it is) passed directly through the interior of the Sun, and so they deduce (with what frail reasoning they may apply to whatever diffuse misinformation at their disposal) – as one exclaimed on the phone this morning: “But doesn’t that PROVE that the Sun isn’t really a SOLID object after all?!?”

    sheesh.

    It has often perplexed me why the folks who write and run the NASA public education service sites (like SpaceWeather) get so exasperated with these hideous eruptions of popular misconception when they so often contribute to triggering them.* This particular eruption will be amusing to watch as it develops.

    (*What do they expect? “Public Outreach” run amok on the model of Madison Avenue and Hollywood, rather than the rules of what we used to call journalistic responsibility and scientific integrity. What was wrong with those the latter again? Oh, yeah, I remember now. Somewhere along the line somebody pipped up the idiotic conclusion, “But science is so BORING!” – and it caught on with many because they figured it must be correct, and so they sought methods to bring pizzazz to science as a means of attracting interest, and found it in the advertising and film industries and consulted the associated consulting firms for advice. Lo and behold, they discovered that the approach can also be surprisingly lucrative, and so it MUST be the right way to go, otherwise it wouldn’t be so successful and effective. They may not realize it, but NASA eggs the pop media on. But science journalists really don’t have an excuse. Too many of THEM have come to regard hype an acceptable baton to grab and are apt to wave it about with pride. Don’t they notice that ‘baton’ is shaped like a crutch?).

    #Sigh# Remember the Good Olde Days, when Bad Astronomy had more posts about bad astronomy – that is, more hard-hitting posts about debunking and correcting or otherwise bringing a healthy skepticism to the ever-present glut of popular but wrong myths and misconceptions – than, say, fluffy, meaningless and inconsequential references to pariedolia? ;)

  20. Trivial Al

    The singular of spermatozoa is spermatozoon. Pronounced zo-un not zoon. Sorry.

  21. Messier Tidy Upper

    Awesome news and clip. Wonderful to see and, whilst I know its anthropomorphising, I can’t help cheering on comet Lovejoy’s triumphiant survival against the odds. :-)

    @20. Anchor :

    “But doesn’t that PROVE that the Sun isn’t really a SOLID object after all?!?”

    Well, technically plasma (which our Sun is) isn’t a solid but the a separate phase state (liquid, gas, solid) again so that’s kinda technically correct. Albeit via a misunderstanding of events. ;-)

    But yeah, I see what you’re getting at there and mostly agree.

    Although :

    Remember the Good Olde Days, when Bad Astronomy had more posts about bad astronomy – that is, more hard-hitting posts about debunking and correcting or otherwise bringing a healthy skepticism to the ever-present glut of popular but wrong myths and misconceptions – than, say, fluffy, meaningless and inconsequential references to pariedolia?

    Are you seriously trying to tell the BA what should be blogging about on his own blog? You know better than to do that don’t you? Are you really complaining about this clip and write-up being posted on the Bad Astronomy blog? Sheesh indeed. :roll:

  22. Joseph G

    @Anchor Remember the Good Olde Days, when Bad Astronomy had more posts about bad astronomy – that is, more hard-hitting posts about debunking and correcting or otherwise bringing a healthy skepticism to the ever-present glut of popular but wrong myths and misconceptions – than, say, fluffy, meaningless and inconsequential references to pariedolia?
    Maybe there’s just less nonsense to debunk these days? When was the last time someone actually tried to make a serious “We didn’t go to the moon” TV documentary?

  23. Amenhotepstein

    Don’t worry, we’ll see it again.

    The Ramans do EVERYTHING in threes!

  24. Gary Ansorge

    15. Ganzy

    “How is it possible for Lovejoy to accelerate to such great speed through it’s passage around the sun and not be ripped apart by”

    It accelerates because it’s in free fall, attracted by the suns gravity. In free fall, no acceleration forces are felt. The only thing that could “pull apart” the comet would be tidal forces, ie, the difference between the force of gravity on the part closest to the sun vs the force felt further away. I doubt there would be more than a few hundred lbs/force differential. Our sun is big but the gravity gradient isn’t all that much,,,

    The only thing the comet would experience is the intense solar radiation, trying to boil off material from the comet surface(mostly water ices). Most comets would evaporate but this comet appears to be made of sterner stuff(rock, metals, etc)

    Gary 7

  25. Todd

    I think we should rename it Comet Harry Potter, the comet who lived ;)

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