It’s tough to be a comet.
You spend most of the time — billions of years, really — out in deep space where it’s cold and dark. Of course, since you’re mostly made of ice, that’s not so bad. After all, the Sun is hot, and if you venture too close…
Well, you know what happens then. And such was the fate of Comet SWAN, discovered just a few days ago as it plunged headlong into the seething fires of the Sun. And I have video!
That was made from images taken by NASA’s SOHO satellite. In fact, the comet is named SWAN because it was first seen in the SOHO SWAN camera, designed to look for ultraviolet light coming from hydrogen. Here’s the thing: no comet has ever been seen before in that camera, including the phenomenally bright comet Lovejoy from a few months ago. But Lovejoy got incredibly bright overall, while this new comet never did brighten much. Comet SWAN must have undergone some sort of outburst to make it so bright and then fade again; that’s happened before.
Here’s another shot of it from SOHO:
[Click to enhalleyenate.]
Comets like these are called Kreutz family Sun grazers, a collective group of comets on similar orbits that take them very close to the Sun’s surface. Some survive, like Lovejoy did, and some… don’t.
Image credit: NASA/SOHO. Music in the video was "Heavy Interlude" by Kevin MacLeod, used under Creative Commons license from incompetech.com.
This video is only 20 seconds long, but wow. Simply, wow.
[Note: I've noticed sometimes the video won't load and you get a black space. Try hitting refresh, or just click the link in the next sentence.]
This was created using a series of still images from the International Space Station on December 29, 2011, over the course of about 20 minutes. The ISS was orbiting over Africa at the time, as it passed from the center of the continent to Madagascar and then over the ocean. The flashes of light are from storms on our planet’s surface.
In the sky, though, the Milky Way steals the scene as it rises over the eastern horizon. Toward the end of the video, what I thought for a moment was a reflection of the Milky Way on the glass of the ISS turns out to actually be Comet Lovejoy, which was still visible at the time. You can also see the thin green arc of airglow over the Earth before the rising Sun ends the video.
If it weren’t copyrighted, I would’ve added Enya’s "Storms in Africa" track to this. It seems appropriate.
… and if there’s a metaphor here for overcoming adversity — whatever that may mean to you — well then, feel free to ruminate over it.
- JAW DROPPING Space Station time lapse!
- Time lapse: The spectacle of Comet Lovejoy
- INSANELY cool picture of Comet Lovejoy
- Time lapse video: ISS cometrise
- JAW DROPPING Space Station time lapse!
Reports are starting to come in that Comet Lovejoy is fading rapidly, which isn’t too surprising. As it gets farther from the Sun it gets colder, and the ice on its surface doesn’t turn into gas quite so vigorously. It’s the cloud of expanding gas that reflects sunlight and makes a comet bright, so there you go.
Still, astrophotographer Colin Legg managed to get enough shots to make this wonderful time lapse animation of Lovejoy as seen over Esperance, Australia on the evening of December 26/27:
Make sure you make it high resolution, and watch it full screen. The movement of the sky you see here is due to the rotation of the Earth, of course, but if you look carefully you can see the head of the comet moving a small amount relative to the stars.
So it looks like we northern hemispherians may never get a good look at Lovejoy… but you never know. Comets are difficult to predict, and Lovejoy has proven itself to be feisty. I wouldn’t bet on it, but I’ll keep my ear to the ground and my eyes to the sky just in case.
Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to Fraser Cain on Google+.
The comet called Lovejoy is still putting on an amazing show for folks south of the Equator. Stéphane Guisard, an astrophotographer who takes stunning pictures of the sky (see Related Posts, below), was in Chile where Lovejoy is making a splashy scene just before sunrise. He created an amazing and lovely time lapse video of the comet, showing just how incredible this ephemeral visitor is:
[The video is hosted on Vimeo; if you have a hard time seeing it, there's also a copy on YouTube. Either way, make sure the resolution is set to its highest setting, and make it full screen.]
That’s phenomenal. The comet is seemingly pinned to the tail of the constellation Scorpius, deep in the path of the Milky Way. You can see some of the stars of Scorpius around the comet as well as a few deep-sky objects like clusters and nebulae.
The tail of the comet — made of dust particles and gas streaming from the solid, frozen (and quite tiny) nucleus of the comet as it’s heated by the Sun — is millions of kilometers long; the comet was over 100 million kilometers from Earth when these pictures were taken!
If you live in the southern hemisphere, the comet is visible just before sunrise; face east to see it. Binoculars should help. Finder charts are all over the web; Heaven’s Above is one I use quite often. You’ll want the darkest skies possible, and a clear horizon.
What a week for observing! All 8 planets are visible in the sky, from Mercury to Neptune (you’ll need binoculars at least for Uranus, and a telescope for Neptune; again check Heavens Above for a chart), as well as the Moon, and this spectacular and short-lived traveler. It’s almost enough to make me want to catch a flight to the Outback and set up camp, just for this chance at a long and once-in-a-lifetime night of viewing.
Credit: Stéphane Guisard, used by permission.
- INSANELY cool picture of Comet Lovejoy
- Time lapse video: ISS cometrise
- Orion in the Mayan skies
- Top Ten Astronomy Pictures of 2009 (see #3 for Stéphane’s picture)
- AMAZING wide-angle time lapse night sky video!
- Time lapse: old rocks and old skies
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
Holy wow! What an astonishing sight that must be. And did you see the object moving right-to-left a few seconds in, just above the green airglow layer? I suspect that was a low-Earth satellite in a different orbit, moving in a different direction. The storms over a dark Australia below make this video that much more dreamlike.
But it’s real. A comet found by an amateur astronomer, observed the world around — and above — and then seen and photographed from space by a man floating in an internationally designed and built habitat in orbit.
That is, quite simply, very cool.
Tip o’ the lens cap to Asteroid Watch.
I know I post a lot of pictures I describe as amazing, lovely, breath-taking, jaw-dropping… but that’s only because it’s always true. In this case, though, I think those adjectives fall way, way short in describing the seriously paralyzing beauty of this photograph: Comet Lovejoy, as seen by an astronaut on board the International Space Station:
[Click to encomanate -- and yes. you need to.]
This stunning photo was taken by astronaut Dan Burbank as the ISS passed over Australia at 17:40 GMT on December 21, 2011 [update: more pix here]. It was early morning over Australia at the time, and you can see the dark limb of the Earth, the thin green line of airglow (atoms in the upper atmosphere slowly releasing the energy they accumulated over the day), some southern hemisphere stars… and of course, the incredible, ethereal, other-worldly beauty of Comet Lovejoy, its tails sweeping majestically into the sky.
Wait, what? "Tails", plural? Yup. Hang on a sec. I’ll get to that.
First, the comet was discovered by amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy in November. It turned out to be a sungrazer, a comet whose orbit plunges it deep into the inner solar system and very close to the Sun’s surface. It screamed past our star last week, on December 15/16, and, amazingly, survived the encounter. Some sungrazers do and some don’t, but Lovejoy is bigger than usual for such a comet, and that may have helped it remain intact as it passed less than 200,000 km over the Sun’s inferno-like surface.
Now the comet is moving back out, away from the Sun and back to the frozen depths of deep space. But the Sun’s heat, even from its greater distance now, is not to be denied. Comets are composed of rock and ice — the ice being what we normally think of as liquid or gas, like ammonia, carbon dioxide, and even good ol’ water. The heat from the Sun turns that ice directly into a gas (in a process called sublimation), which expands around the solid nucleus of the comet, forming what’s called the coma. Pressure from sunlight as well as the solar wind blows this material away from the comet head, resulting in the lovely tail, which can sweep back for millions of kilometers.
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. Read More