Comet Lovejoy to 'Play Chicken' With the Sun

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UPDATE (7pm ET): Comet Lovejoy is making its closest approach to the sun, keep an eye on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory live Comet Lovejoy page to see the event unfold through the SDO’s high-definition eyes.

With an obvious death wish, Comet Lovejoy is on a rather unfortunate voyage; it’s falling toward the sun.

However, the comet’s projected orbit shows that it will technically miss the sun by the narrowest of margins. But for this particular lump of ice and rock, the near-miss is a little too near — Comet Lovejoy will likely vaporize long before it has time to admire the view.

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Known as a Kreutz Sungrazing comet, or simply a “sungrazer,” C/2011 W3 (Lovejoy) was discovered by Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy on Nov. 27, 2011. It is expected to make closest solar approach on Thursday (Dec. 15) at 7 p.m. EST. When it does so, it will only be 87,000 miles from the churning solar “surface” — the photosphere.

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At these hellish depths of the solar atmosphere, the comet will endure the extreme coronal environment where temperatures soar to millions of degrees. Depending on Lovejoy’s composition, it probably won’t survive long. This is one game of “chicken” the comet can’t win.

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As noted by Karl Battams, a researcher at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., on the Sungrazing Comets website, Comet Lovejoy has a tiny companion comet flying alongside.

This companion was most likely once a part of Comet Lovejoy and became fragmented possibly a few decades before this particular solar encounter. This is expected, according to Battams, as Kreutz Sungrazing comets are often of a “clumpy” composition — they easily fragment and will often be discovered with smaller comets keeping them company.

Currently, solar observatories are keeping a close eye on Comet Lovejoy and astronomers expect its brightness to increase, possibly to a similar magnitude as Venus in the night sky. But due to the comet’s close proximity to the sun, it’s unlikely to be visible to the naked eye — although some astronomers speculate otherwise.

(WARNING: Do NOT look directly at the sun to try to find the comet, instead depend on space-based instruments, like the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) that took the photo shown above, or a trained professional.)

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So what will become of Comet Lovejoy? We’ll have to wait and see. It may appear to brighten as it gets heated by the sun. It might fragment, breaking into many smaller pieces. Although optimists are hoping the “dirty snowball” survives the plunge and flies past the sun, my bet is that the comet will vaporize well before reaching the point of closest approach.

Let’s hope there are some fireworks before that happens.

Image: The view from SOHO’s LASCO instrument on Dec. 15. Comet Lovejoy (center-bottom) is very prominent (NASA/ESA)