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article imageComet Lovejoy survives 'death dive' into Sun's corona

By JohnThomas Didymus     Dec 16, 2011 in Science
Comet Lovejoy plunged into the Sun's corona at about 7 p.m. ET, on December 15. NASA scientists have announced that the comet survived the "death plunge" defying predictions that it would be completely vapourised.
At its closest approach to the Sun, Lovejoy was only 87,000 miles (140,000 kilometers) from the solar photosphere, bringing it within the Sun's corona with temperatures up to 2 million degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 million degrees Celsius). Scientists had expected the comet would be extinguished in the hot environment of the sun's corona.
MSNBC reports that a video taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) showed the icy comet emerging literally from hell and streaking off back into space. MSNBC reports that SDO scientists tweeted as soon as Lovejoy emerged: "Breaking News! Lovejoy lives! The comet Lovejoy has survived its journey around the sun to reemerge on the other side."
Karl Battams, scientist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, had predicted the death of the comet on his Sungrazing Comets website before Lovejoy took the plunge:
"We have here an exceptionally rare opportunity to observe the complete vaporization of a relatively large comet, and we have approximately 18 instruments on five different satellites that are trying to do just that." reports that Battam expressed his surprise at the survival of Lovejoy:
"I expected a diffuse dust tail to survive (for several hours) before fading away but NOT any kind of nucleus! I've worked with sungrazers for 8yrs; today was the most amazing day I've ever had with them!"
The path of the comet around the Sun was a hairpin-like curve at a speed of over a million miles per hour. Scientific instruments were trained on Lovejoy as it took the "death dive." Lovejoy's close approach to the sun was unique opportunity for scientists because although comets dive into the sun regularly scientists are often not aware of the event in advance to make preparations to observe it.
CBS reported Lovejoy was discovered by an amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy in November 27, so astronomers have had enough time to prepare to witness its death dive.
NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) and Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO) observed Lovejoy's death dive. So also did the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) jointly owned by the European Space Agency and NASA. Japan's Hinode spacecraft carrying NASA's instruments also recorded the comet as it dived into the sun's corona, looking out to capture X-ray images.
Lovejoy belongs to a group of comets called Kreutz sungrazers. The comets are named after Heinrich Kreutz, a 19th-century German astronomer who first showed that they are related. They are called "sungrazers" because their orbits bring them very close to the sun. Scientists believe they are remains of a giant comet that broke up several centuries ago.
Lovejoy's unexpected re-emergence from the Sun's corona provides another opportunity to observe it on Friday. According to scientists, observers in North America should look out for Lovejoy about 5 to 10 minutes before dawn on the upper right of the sun. The comet flared as it plunged into the Sun's corona and if its is still bright it may be visible to observers.
Skywatchers are warned, however, never to point a telescope or binoculars at or near the Sun and not to stare directly at it with the naked eye.
More about comet lovejoy, Sun, perihelion