Let’s Look for Comet Lovejoy Now!

You have to wake up early for this.

Comet Lovejoy. Credit: Colin Legg

Comet Lovejoy has now brightened to naked eye visibility. It can be seen in the morning twilight just before the Sun rises in the constellation Scorpius. You need a clear and unobstructed eastern horizon to increase your chances to see it. If the weather condition is good, even if you can’t see the comet head because of foreground obstruction, you might still be able to glimpse the comet tail.

Comet Lovejoy rising over Western Australia by Colin Legg

The sighting of Comet Lovejoy favours the Southern Hemisphere. Theoretically, we at the equator might be able to see it, but we really need a clear horizon. The visibility of the comet could improve in the days ahead as the comet moves away from the Sun and the background sky darkens accordingly.

Below is a very very stunning image of Comet Lovejoy – a view from space!! This jaw-dropping image of Comet Lovejoy was taken by Dan Burbank, the Expedition 30 commander onboard the International Space Station.

They even created a time lapse video of it!


These fantastic images of the comet are only part of the story. Let’s talk a bit on the story before this…

Comet Lovejoy, which bears the official name of C/2011 W3, was discovered by an amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy early December. This comet is a sungrazer – a comet that passes extremely close to the Sun. The most famous sungrazers are the Kreutz Sungrazers, which all originate from one giant comet that broke up into many smaller comets during its first passage through the inner solar system. Comet Lovejoy belongs to these Kreutz family comets, so did the Great Comets of 1843 and 1882, and Comet Ikeya-Seki in 1965. They were all fragments of the original comet.

Because Kreutz sungrazers are typically small (~10 metres wide), they usually will be completely evaporated during a close approach to the Sun. However, larger ones may survive their passage through the Sun. And Comet Lovejoy is one of those larger one. On Dec 16, Comet Lovejoy plunged through the Sun atmosphere and emerged from the other side intact (the video below is a must see). It was a surprise for the scientists, because they thought that its icy core was not large enough to survive the passage.

Credit: NASA/SDO

After surviving the journey, Comet Lovejoy is now moving away from the Sun and going back to the frozen deep space. As it is backing out, it does not forget to put on a show for us, as can be seen from the picture at the beginning of this post.

I got a place near my house with a unobstructed eastern horizon. I’m going to give the Comet a try (in few hours’ time, actually). Wish me clear sky!


~ by thChieh on December 24, 2011.

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