INSANELY cool picture of Comet Lovejoy

By Phil Plait | December 24, 2011 7:00 am

The pictures of Comet Lovejoy keep coming, each cooler than the one before. It’s hard to imagine topping the ones from the Space Station, but then you don’t have to imagine it when you can just look at this crazy amazing shot:

Holy Haleakala! [Click to stimulatedemissionate.]

Well, actually, "Holy Paranal!" This picture, by Gabriel Brammer, was taken at the Very Large Telescope observatory on Cerro Paranal in the Atacama desert in Chile, and it’s just stunning. The comet is obvious enough — you can still see the two tails — and the crescent Moon, somewhat overexposed, on the left. On the right is the VLT itself, firing a laser into the sky. The laser makes atoms high in the atmosphere glow, creating an artificial star that can be used to compensate for turbulence in the air, creating sharper images.

I love how the Milky Way is splitting the sky. You can see the dark hole of the Coal Sack, a thick dust cloud that absorbs the star light from behind it, and the Southern Cross in the middle of the frame. The two bright stars just below that are Alpha and Beta Centauri, the former being the closest star system to our own. The southern hemisphere gets a better view of the galaxy than we northerners do, since the geometry of the Earth’s tilt puts the center of the Milky Way higher up for them. I’m jealous enough just because of that, but to have this incredible comet visible too? Curse you antipodeans!

[UPDATE: The ESO has added a nice time lapse video to the mix, using Brammer’s photos:

Sigh. So lovely.]

If you’re south of the Equator, the comet will be visible in the east before sunrise for a few more days at least. If you can, go take a look. Comets like this are extremely rare, and you may never get another chance like this again.

Image credit: Gabriel Brammer/European Southern Observatory

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (19)

  1. Larry

    And so if I follow the comet to the west….

  2. @ ^ Larry : .. You’ll need a rocket and end up far in the outer solar system! 😉

    Wikipedia says Comet Lovejoy has a 314 or so year orbit. So – see you again in 2326?

    (I’ll be getting up early and looking for it 3 am this morn. Weather permitting.)

  3. Navneeth

    Comets like this are extremely rare…

    Especially a survivor such as this one, coming back immediately to put on a show with a smile.

  4. Brian

    I got up early this morning (Christmas Day) to observe Comet Lovejoy. The tail covered between 1/8 & 1/6 of the sky from horizon to horizon but wasn’t all that bright- just a ribbon of light and I saw only one tail. Although certainly impressive, Comet McNaught from five years ago was more spectacular.

  5. Oz

    Haha Phil….that’s what you get for living in the US :) 😛 You miss out on all the good sky stuff. I mean, us poor guys south of the border only get the centre of the galaxy directly OVERHEAD!!! :) 😛 And, now we have a visitor to really show it all off :). Maybe you should emigrate :) 😛

  6. davros

    it has been cloudy the last few mornings and i thought i might have a chance today so set the alarm for 4 am and Fog fog fog until about 7am Damm
    try again tomorrow but forecast for showers and thunderstorms

  7. Kim

    I tried the 24th and now the 25th, but didn’t see anything :( The sky was perfect, I started watching towards the sunrise (considering magnetic deviation and the solstice) about one hour before the Sun came up, and saw nada. It appears that the good days were the 21st and 22nd…

    I am at 15 degrees S, does that matter? Should I already look for the comet at another direction, not sunrise? Where can I make a sky chart with the comet predicted trajectory?

  8. PhilippeC

    Could some life form cruising by see this laser beam pointed at them?

    How far does the light emitted by the laser can be detected? Is it entirely absorbed by the atmosphere before it can get to ‘space’?

  9. Messier Tidy Upper

    For those who are wondering – I got up pre-dawn these last two morns – but clouds have prevented me seeing Comet Lovejoy each time so far. Will keep trying. Anyone else had better fortune?

  10. Messier Tidy Upper

    @9. Kim :

    Try :

    which hopefully helps. Scroll down there for a set of findercharts – Comet Lovejoy is moving quickly and was today above Scorpius roughly in line with the stars of Zeta Scorpii.

    @10. PhilippeC :

    Could some life form cruising by see this laser beam pointed at them?

    You mean like humans and birds? Sure. 😉

    How far does the light emitted by the laser can be detected? Is it entirely absorbed by the atmosphere before it can get to ‘space’?</i.

    This ESO webpage :

    found via the BA’s link in the article here notes :

    astronomers can create artificial stars instead by shining a powerful laser beam into the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

    Unfortunately they don’t provide specifics onhow high and their FAQ doesn’t seem to answer it either. You can ask them directly via their site.

    Aha! See :

    Which notes :

    The laser beam takes advantage of the layer of sodium atoms that is present in Earth’s atmosphere at an altitude of 90 kilometres. Shining at a well-defined wavelength the laser makes it glow. The laser is launched from Yepun, the fourth 8.2-m Unit Telescope of the Very Large Telescope, producing an artificial star. Despite this star being about 20 times fainter than the faintest star that can be seen with the unaided eye, it is bright enough for the adaptive optics to measure and correct the atmosphere’s blurring effect. Compared to a normal star, this artificial star has some differing properties that the associated Laser Guide Star (LGS) Adaptive Optics (AO) system has to be able to cope with.

    Which hopefullyanswers most of your question there. ET seeing it would depend on how close they got tothe observatory I guess! 😉

  11. @ 10. PhilippeC :

    Still not sure if this really answers your question but Wikipedia also has an item on laser guide stars observing :

    Sodium beacons are created by using a laser specially tuned to 589.2 nanometers to energize a layer of sodium atoms which are naturally present in the mesosphere at an altitude of around 90 kilometers.

    Source :

    Click on my name for the (atmospheric) mesosphere’s wiki-page which includes a to-scale graphic of the Earth’s atmosphere showing where it is in relation to outer space commonly though to start with the final layer of earth’s atmosphere the exosphere at around 600 km high.

    However, I’m not sure if any of the lasers light escapes that mesospheric altitude. Be interesting to see if any of the astronauts from the International Space Station could spot it! Or, for that matter, any observers on the ground – and for how far distant from it if so. Apparently the artificial star is :

    about 20 times fainter than the faintest star that can be seen with the unaided eye,

    However, the beam itself apparently *is* visible as this observes :

    The colour of the laser beam on the first image actually looks pretty close to what one can see on the sky with the unaided eye.”

    Source : ‘Photos of the VLT’s Laser Guide Star: “The Planet, the Galaxy and the Laser” (See : ) .

    (That link found via this comment (# 16.) by Mike Oliver :

    on the linked ‘Beam Me Up’ BA blog thread.)

    So, from that, it sounds like you can see the laser beam but not the artificial guide star itself.

    Anyone else able to answer that question any better and clarify this some more, please?


    “Space isn’t remote at all. Its only an hour away if your car could go straight upwards.”
    – Page 43, Sir Fred Hoyle, ‘The Wonderful World of Space’, Heather Couper, Octopus Books, 1980.

  12. @10. PhilippeC :

    Extra info. from the comment (#49.) by Darren linked to my name here via the old ‘Beam Me Up’ BA blog thread :

    “In contrast, the laser beam is bright enough to see its color with our eyes. The only issue is that on the image the laser beam looks really bright (due to long exposure time), while in reality it has a very deep and dim orange color.”
    – Yuri Beletsky, astrophotographer.

    No idea how far away it can be seen from however. I suspect not all that far but could well be wrong. Anyone know more & care to enlighten us, please? (I gather at least one Paranal worker sometimes comments here.)

    Maybe something to send as a e-mail question to the ESO & Paranal VLT telescope?

  13. Bill Simpson

    You can see the BEST photo of this comet by going to the newspaper search ‘comet lovejoy’ and click on the first story ‘Christmas comet is an eye-opener’ FREAKING AMAZING PHOTO OF IT by Grant Schwartzkopff. Better than NASA!!! Bill in Slidell ,LA.
    D O N ‘t M i s s this one, people. C O O L

  14. @ ^ Bill Simpson : Thanks for that. :-)

    You’re another South Aussie here I take it? 8)

    BTW. That link just takes you to their main online front page – but typing Comet Lovejoy into the search box there quickly brings up some good results.

    PS. Finally saw Comet Lovejoy this morning as I’ve mentioned on a BA blog thread or two already. Click on my name for details. :-)

  15. Some snaps and a timelapse I got of Lovejoy and the Leonis Minoris meteor shower in Queensland, Australia :) (Lovejoy & a Leonis Minoris meteor). (Lovejoy, meteor + startrail) (Lovejoy & Leonis Minoris meteor shower) – still trying to figure Vimeo out.. might reupload in the future in higher res.




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