Comet Lovejoy, fresh from escaping a fiery death from the Sun, has become visible in the night sky sporting a pair of glowing tails.
Comet Lovejoy, the cosmic kickball that last week amazed astronomers by escaping from the Sun, is doing a sort of flashy victory lap around the Earth. Skywatchers in the Southern Hemisphere have spotted C/2011 W3, as it's known to its comet buddies, trailing a luminous dust plume across darkened skies.
Actually, it's more impressive than that: Lovejoy is rocking two so-called "tails." The first is a dust tail of particulate matter shedding off the comet's icy epidermis; this is the kind of dandruff that can later pass through the atmosphere as meteors. Lovejoy's exhaust pipe is also spraying out a gas tail composed of electrically conductive ions that glow in the blackness of space. The gas tail is magnetically active and is blown around like a windsock by waves of solar wind. Sometimes it is blown off entirely as was the case with Comet Encke in 2007. (There's also a third tail made of sodium, although we generally don't get to see it. Here's an example from Hale-Bopp.)
People in Australia have had a great shot at seeing Lovejoy tour our solar system just before the Sun rises. Below, find a wonderful time lapse taken by Colin Legg of Mandurah in southwest Australia. Says Legg: "Had a beautiful view of the comet this morning. I took this sequence to try to capture the changing face of the comet as twilight progressed."