- Comet Lovejoy (C/2011 W3) flares up as it approaches the Sun in this NASA image from Thursday afternoon. (NASA / Solar and Heliospheric Observatory)
One of the brightest comets ever recorded in the modern age of optics, Comet Lovejoy, passed within a hair's width of the Sun's blistering surface last night. Whether it would survive with a significant loss of ice mass or would be blasted into a plume of gas by the ever-chugging solar furnace was an unresolved question. What was apparent, though, was that this comet is special, a glowing military flare compared to the other candle-bright comets that buzz the Sun.
NASA has said that Lovejoy, also known as C/2011 W3, is the brightest comet ever observed by its Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, launched in 1995. That's because it's a real bloater in the astro-world, measuring as wide as two football fields. Most suicidal Sun-divers span only about 30 feet.
Lovejoy's bulk is giving it the ability to shine like a Saturn V moon rocket. Look at it flare up in this footage from Dec. 12, 2011:
And this is another short movie showing the effects that the Sun's forceful wind is having on Lovejoy's tail. The sense of overwhelming doom is palpable:
These videos were produced by Karl Battams, who helps NASA and the Naval Research Lab capture star-struck comets in their final throes of flaming ecstasy. Battams also runs the site Sungrazing Comets, required reading for anyone with a passing interest in huge objects crashing into each other. Here he is on Tuesday opining about Comet Lovejoy's "imminent destruction":
It's almost a little sad when you think about it: Originally as part of a much larger object, Comet Lovejoy has existed for billions of years, since the formation of the solar system. It has outlived countless species on Earth. Indeed, it existed before life on Earth! And now it will almost certainly be completely destroyed within 72hrs. That is a long time spent doing very little, to have such a short remaining time doing so much. But while it may have gone through most of its existence unnoticed, the same can certainly not be said now as increasing numbers of astronomers and enthusiasts alike are following its spectacular demise.
That is pure science poetry right there. But is there a chance that Lovejoy could overcome its brush with the baddest orb in the solar system?
Actually, yes, though it seemed extremely doubtful yesterday. This kind of meeting is like dropping a single snowflake into a Dyson Airblade and expecting it to survive intact. But as the comet's orbit didn't steer it directly into the star, there's always a (teensy-weensy) possibility that something will come out from the other side Sun, though it might not be in the form of a comet. Maybe some hot dust.
Or a darn-diddly-arned comet.
Turns out Lovejoy emerged, or at least a part of it did. For up-to-date info on what happened Thursday night, these are the sites you need to check: SOHO, Sungrazing Comets, Spaceweather. And here's the proof that LOVEJOY LIVES, showing a bright dot peeling away from the Sun like a smoking piece of shrapnel: