Comet Lovejoy Rages Against The Dying Of The Light – Updated

Comet Lovejoy shows a brilliant coma and a tail several degrees long in this photo taken by SOHO at 10:30 a.m. CST today. Click photo to see the latest video. Credit: NASA/ESA

(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.

Closeup of the comet from the STEREO-A space telescope from yesterday. Credit: NASA

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.

The photo at left was taken at 5:36 p.m. CST Dec. 15 with SOHO's closeup C2 coronagraph and shows the comet near the time of closest approach to the sun. At right are pictures of the two comet fragments that preceded Lovejoy and might be related to it. One developed a short tail; the other had a star-like appearance. Credit: NASA/ESA

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.

This photo, taken at 6:46 p.m. CST Dec. 15 by the Solar Dynamics Observatory, is one frame of a short movie. At least a part of the comet appears to have survived perihelion. Click image to see the video. Credit: NASA

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!!

Catch the moon, Regulus and Mars in the eastern sky around midnight tonight. Created with Stellarium

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.

12 Responses

  1. Great coverage, Bob! I came back to see what you had after it seemed the SOHO C2/3 weren’t being updated (wanted to be sure the sun hadn’t exploded over there on the dark side of the planet!)

    Amazing post-passage video. Can’t wait to see what other imagery will come in the next few days.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Jim,
      Thanks for writing. Yes, the short UV SDO video is wonderful. I’ve never seen a comet’s tail swirl like that. Great stuff! Hoping to see the comet on tomorrow’s SOHO images.

        1. astrobob

          Hi Carol,
          It is rare for what was believed to be a very, very small comet to survive such a close encounter. As you’ve read, some scientists think it had to be considerably larger to do so. Most sungrazers fizz out at or near closest approach. Only the large ones survive.

  2. Mac

    Wow! Ok Bob I have sooooo many questions about this thing so here goes…
    1. Is there any way to tell how much mass was lost during the trip around the sun?
    2. Which way did it slingshot? Was there even a predicted path beyond the sun?
    3. Will there be any chance to see this comet with the naked eye in the coming hours/days and would sunset be the best bet for viewing?
    4. And finally, is this the first sungrazer ever to survive such a close shave with the sun?

    Thanks Bob!

    1. astrobob

      Hi Mac,
      1. Probably but that would come from radio and spectroscopic observations with larger instruments. When I find out, I’ll post the information.
      2. The comet followed a sharply-curved orbit around the sun often described as a “hair-pin” turn because of the resemblance. And yes, there was a predicted path after perihelion which the comet is still following as it moves out and away from the sun.
      3. I’ll draw up a chart later tonight, but yes, there’s a chance of seeing it in the southern hemisphere in the coming days as it moves south of the sun and into the morning sky. Maybe, just maybe, it might show very close a bit above and right of the sun tomorrow morning immediately before sunrise from the northern hemisphere, otherwise it quickly moves south and won’t be visible in the north for the time being.
      4. Other sungrazers have survived very close shaves with the sun. The most famous recent comet was Ikeya-Seki in 1965.

      1. Mac

        Thank you for taking time to answer my questions Bob! I did some research on Ikeya-Seki and at -10 that must have been amazing to witness from the ground! I can only hope I get the chance to see such a sight in my lifetime. How beautiful these things are, simply amazing!

        1. astrobob

          I almost saw Ikeya-Seki as a kid, but the sky was cloudy around the best time. They are indeed beautiful things!

  3. Juan Cortez

    what does the fact that this comet survived such close encounter with the sun say about nasa estimation that Lovejoy was only 600 feet across when some part of the core was visible when it went passed the sun? No core whatsoever should have been visible if it was only 600 feet across!!! That thing was gigantic…Maybe mercury-sized, seems more likely. Thank you for your work and time

    1. astrobob

      Hi Juan,
      You’re right. No core is EVER visible actually. When a comet scientist estimates a comet’s size, they’re referring to the actual hard nucleus, not the much larger but extremely rarified cloud of gas and debris called the coma. A coma, which is what we see in photographs, telescopes and with our eyes, can be much bigger than Mercury. What’s producing the coma is relatively tiny even in big comets, whose nuclei measure 15-30 miles across. Estimating the size of a comet’s nucleus is not easy because it’s shrouded in gas and dust lit by the sun. By the way, by convention, when we use the word ‘comet’, astronomers are referring to the whole phenomenon, not specifically the nucleus.

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