(If you’ve been here earlier, please scroll up for the latest videos and photos showing Comet Lovejoy zip past the sun. Very exciting stuff.)
Wow, that is one brilliant comet! The huge spikes in the head are caused by saturation (overexposure) of the image detector by the intensity of the sunlight reflecting from Lovejoy’s head or coma. I’m reminded of a Klingon Bird of Prey warship from the Star Trek TV series or better, the Thunderbird, a Native American symbol of power and strength.
I suspect some will attempt to see Comet Lovejoy today even though it’s extremely close to the sun. I’m aware of at least two tries by experienced amateur astronomers this morning using binoculars and a 16-inch telescope with negative results. If you’re thinking about doing this yourself, be very careful. The comet is only two degrees away from an object that if stared at can damage your vision for life. The only safe way to make an observation is to completely block the sun with a solid, opaque object like a building, power pole or roof and stare into the sky glare with sunglasses.
If you’re observing around local noon in the mainland U.S. and Canada, the comet will be below and left of the sun. In the mid-afternoon, Lovejoy will appear almost directly above the sun, even closer and probably impossible to see no matter how bright. Your safest route to keep tabs on the comet’s flight is by checking the LASCO C3 and LASCO C2 real-time photos. As of 1 p.m. CST, it’s about as bright as Venus or magnitude -4.
Take a close look at the picture above and you’ll see two tails. The brighter, shorter one to the right is the dust tail, formed of cigarette-smoke-sized dust particles shed from the vaporizing comet’s nucleus. The dust reflects light strongly. Farther up along the left side of the dust tail is a fainter, spike-like ion tail caused by atoms fluorescing in ultraviolet sunlight.
You’ll also see two very tiny additional cometary fragments in the video link. Both precede Comet Lovejoy and look like stars. The first one is visible straight below the sun before Lovejoy moves into the frame on 12/13 around 14:18 on the clock. The second is immediately above the comet on 12/15 around 7:30.
Altogether an amazing sight, but will it survive its hairpin turn around the sun when it reaches perihelion (closest approach) this evening? Indeed it may have as you can see from the picture above. I’ll update with the latest, so please check back. By the way, the today’s blog title is a reference to one of my favorite Dylan Thomas poems “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night“. Click the link to hear him read it.
Even better, check out this color video from a different angle of the zooming comet after perihelion compiled from Solar Dynamics Observatory photos. Amazing!!
There’s more than pygmy comets flying around the sun to see. After all, we have several hours of dark sky this evening before the moon rises around 10 p.m. Step out and enjoy the colors of twilight and watch Orion’s signature 3-starred belt come up in the east around 8. You’ll get an eyeful if you’re outside around midnight, when the waning gibbous moon rises right under Leo’s brightest star Regulus. A fist to the lower left will take you straight to the planet Mars.