Living in the Southern Hemisphere around Christmas (2011), a viewer interested in the heavens could have seen a comet (a large mass of icy rock) streak through the night sky. This was no ordinary comet. Many astronomers feared the comet would disappear as it had to travel through the sun’s corona. However, it defied all odds by coming through the fire and shining brighter than ever. This comet was sighted for the first time in Queensland, Australia.
Comet Lovejoy (C/2011 W3) was discovered on November 27, 2011 by Terry Lovejoy, an Australian amateur astronomer. Early that morning Terry took many pictures of the sky with his scope and camera. After processing them, he noticed a rapidly moving fuzzy object in one picture. This caused him to investigate the other pictures he had taken which led to his discovery of the comet. The Minor Planet Center officially announced the discovery of Comet Lovejoy on December 2.
Kruetz sungrazers are fragments of a single giant comet that broke apart back in the 12th century. These comets tend to be quite small and are seen falling into the sun every few days by The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. Comet Lovejoy is the first ground-based discovery of a Kreutz sungrazing comet since 1970 and is much larger than others as its core is thought to be 500 meters in diameter. It is classified as a Kruetz sungrazer as its orbit takes it very close to the sun. It was not expected to survive its trajectory through the sun due to the extreme heat, but early in the morning of December 16, Comet Lovejoy completed its path from one side of the sun to the other surviving the intense heat through the hot corona. It came as close as 87,000 miles to the surface of the sun.
Comet Lovejoy became visible to the naked eye in the Southern Hemisphere on December 22 as it traveled away from the sun. It was named “The Great Christmas Comet of 2011” as it was viewable around Christmas, and some even considered it a Christmas present for those working in the Paranal Observatory in Chile, South America. The comet is not visible in the Northern Hemisphere, so it can only be viewed through the amazing pictures taken by astrophotographers.
The comet will continue its orbit until it disappears into the solar system. No one can predict for certain if it will disintegrate or reappear in 314 years.