Astronomy Facts about Comet Lovejoy

The comet Lovejoy (C2011W3) was reported as recently discovered this year on December 2, 2011 by the amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy of Australia. But a similar comet with the same name by the same astronomer was discovered in 2007 (C2007E2).

A few days ago on December 14, 2011 Comet Lovejoy plunged into the atmosphere of the sun, but survived the heat of the Sun and emerged out of the atmosphere. It came within 140,000 kilometers of the Sun. The temperatures in the Corona of the Sun reach 2 million degrees Fahrenheit.

According to Karl Battams, a solar researcher of the Naval Research Center in Washington, D.C., the comet lost its tail because of the Sun’s intense heat. Coronagraphs took pictures of the encounter. Coronagraphs take pictures of the Corona of the Sun by blacking out most of the Sun. The instrument was invented in 1930 by the French astronomer Bernard Lyot.

Chronagraphs have bright metal screens used to block off the intense light of the Sun. The Coronagraph needs to be at high altitudes on clear days to work properly. His exact words were “The only notable exception is that it appears to have lost its tail … In fact its tail is still gently floating out in space where it was before perihelion!”

There were five spacecraft in the area when the comet entered the Sun’s upper atmosphere. They were NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory and twin STEREO probes, Europe’s Proba2 microsatellite, and the ESA/NASA Solar And Heliospheric Observatory. Commander of the International Space Station (ISS) Dan Burbank saw the comet when it entered the atmosphere of the Sun.  

It was thought that the comet must be much larger than had previously been thought. It took nearly a day for the comet to circumnavigate the Sun. The comet looks like a giant dust cloud. Its color is brown.

The comet is a member of the Kreutz family of sungrazing comets. Many Kreutz sungrazers broke off the Great Comet of 1106 a.d. when it broke apart. They are usually small in size (about ten meters wide). Comet Lovejoy could be as large as 500 meters wide.

Kreutz sungrazing comets are named after the very close approach they make at perihelion. They were named after the German astronomer Heinrich Kreutz. Some of the brightest members of the group include The Great Comet of 1843, The Eclipse Comet of 1882, The Great Comet of 1882, and The Ikeya-Seki Comet of 1965.