Comet Lovejoy's death-defying plunge into the sun [Video]
Comet Lovejoy hurtled through the sun's corona Thursday, and astounded skywatchers by coming out the other side. Here's how Comet Lovejoy survived.
A newfound comet defied long odds today (Dec. 15), surviving a suicidal dive through the sun's hellishly hot atmosphere, according to NASA scientists.Skip to next paragraph
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Comet Lovejoy plunged through the sun's corona at about 7 p.m. EST today (midnight GMT on Dec. 16), coming within 87,000 miles (140,000 kilometers) of our star's surface. Temperatures in the corona can reach 2 million degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 million degrees Celsius), so most researchers expected the icy wanderer to be completely destroyed.
But Lovejoy proved to be made of tough stuff. A video taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) spacecraft showed the icy object emerging from behind the sun and zipping back off into space.
"Breaking News! Lovejoy lives! The comet Lovejoy has survived its journey around the sun to reemerge on the other side," SDO researchers tweeted today.
SDO is one of many instruments that scientists — eager to record and study the comet's presumed demise — trained on Lovejoy as it streaked toward the sun.
"We have here an exceptionally rare opportunity to observe the complete vaporization of a relatively large comet, and we have approximately 18 instruments on five different satellites that are trying to do just that," Karl Battams, a scientist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., wrote on the Sungrazing Comets website today, before Lovejoy's closest solar approach.
Battams runs the website, which is devoted to comets discovered by two different spacecraft: NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) and the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), which is operated jointly by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).
Battams greeted news of Lovejoy's improbable escape with surprise and delight. [Photos of Death-Defying Comet Lovejoy]
"I expected a diffuse dust tail to survive (for several hours) before fading away but NOT any kind of nucleus!" he tweeted today. "I've worked with sungrazers for 8yrs; today was the most amazing day I've ever had with them!"
Preparing for the end
Lovejoy has a core about 660 feet (200 meters) wide. It belongs to a class of comets known as Kreutz sungrazers, whose orbits bring them very close to the sun.
All Kreutz sungrazers are thought to be the remnants of a single giant comet that broke apart several centuries ago. They're named after the 19th-century German astronomer Heinrich Kreutz, who first showed that such comets are related.
Comets plunge into the sun on a regular basis, but they rarely give much advance notice of their suicidal intentions. That's why scientists were so excited about Lovejoy. Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy discovered the icy wanderer on Nov. 27, giving researchers plenty of time to map out their observation campaign.
And that campaign has been intense, involving five different spacecraft. In addition to SDO, SOHO and STEREO, scientists planned to use Japan's Hinode satellite and ESA's Proba spacecraft to track Lovejoy's movements, Battams wrote.