Officially known as C/2011 W3, comet Lovejoy was discovered by amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy of Brisbane, Australia, in late November. The ball of ice and dust was identified as a Kreutz sungrazer, a family of comets thought to be fragments from a larger body that broke up centuries ago.
Astronomers predicted comet Lovejoy would be destroyed when it made a close pass by the sun late on December 15, eastern time. But to the surprise of many—including its discoverer—the comet survived its solar encounter and reappeared after a few hours.
Although Lovejoy lost its original tail as it skimmed the sun's surface, the comet "reappeared almost like a point and redeveloped a tail on the way out, which I thought was quite amazing," astronomer Lovejoy told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Comet Lovejoy became visible to the naked eye in the Southern Hemisphere last week—and continued to streak across predawn skies through the holiday weekend.
A wide-angle picture captures comet Lovejoy streaking near the arc of the Milky Way, with the telescopes of the European Southern Observatory's Paranal facility in Chile in the foreground. ESO optician Guillaume Blanchard snapped the picture on December 22.
Lovejoy currently sports a bright tail millions of kilometres long that's made up of dust particles being blown away by the solar wind—a constant flow of charged particles from the sun. Eventually the comet's orbit will take it deeper into the solar system and out of visual range for at least another 314 years, according to astronomers' predictions.
Comet Lovejoy's flyby of the sun and unexpected reappearance were captured by a number of sun-watching telescopes, including NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, which snapped this shot of Lovejoy emerging from the sun's upper atmosphere, or corona, on December 15.
At its closest approach, Lovejoy was a mere 87,000 miles (140,000 kilometers) above the solar surface.
"Objects like this can ... provide us with a tremendous amount of information about the solar wind and conditions in the solar corona, which in turn allows us to gain more understanding of the Sun as a driver of 'Space Weather' at Earth," Karl Bottoms, of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., wrote of Lovejoy on his Sungrazing Comets website.
Photograph courtesy SDO/NASA
Lovejoy to the World
Comet Lovejoy seems poised to pierce the layers of Earth's atmosphere in a picture taken December 22 by astronaut Dan Burbank, commander of the Expedition 30 crew aboard the International Space Station.
When Burbank first saw the bright arc of the comet's tail as the ISS was passing over Tasmania, he didn't know what it was. He later described the object as possibly "the most amazing thing I've ever seen in space."
Comet Lovejoy is reflected in the waters of an Australian estuary in a picture taken last week by amateur astronomer Colin Legg.
As it approached the sun, Lovejoy was one of the brightest sungrazers yet seen by NASA satellites. After its solar flyby, the comet and its regrown tail became bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, although its orbital path makes the comet visible for now only to Southern Hemisphere observers.
The comet will rise in the sky as it moves away from the sun, likely clearing the horizon for Northern Hemisphere sky-watchers in mid-February, according to PCMag.com. But by that time, the comet will have faded and may be visible only with telescopes.
Photograph courtesy Colin Legg
Comet Meets Cloud
A passing cloud seems to offer a soft landing for comet Lovejoy in a picture taken in late December from the French-run island of Réunion, off the east coast of Madagascar.
Sky-watchers take in the view of comet Lovejoy near Bakers Hill, about 44 miles (70 kilometers) from Perth, Australia, on December 26.
Even after the comet fades from night skies, astronomers will likely continue to study the data collected on Lovejoy's near-death experience with the sun.
"I suppose if something is big and tough enough it will survive. This event tells us that the comet was rather more robust than expected," Robert Massey, of the U.K.'s Royal Astronomical Society, told the Daily Mail online.
Lovejoy also shows that it's possible other sungrazing comets survived solar encounters and we simply weren't able to see them, Massey said: "It just shows how good the technology is now."