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Comet Stays Alive After Buzzing Sun

Much to everyone’s surprise, comet Lovejoy survived its heated encounter with the sun late yesterday.

Between the hours of 7 and 8 p.m. ET, cameras aboard NASA’s sun-watching satellite the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) had a ringside seat to the bombing of the bun, and they managed to lock onto the comet.

Nasa satellite images show comet Lovejoy racing through the superheated solar corona, shedding material. Credit: NASA/SDO

SDO’s onboard cameras provided live views that were streamed over the Internet, showing the comet’s precarious journey directly through the million-degree heat of the solar corona. All the while Lovejoy was visibly shedding material as it reached an altitude of only 87,000 miles from the sun’s surface.

While most watching the solar spectacle, including astronomers, thought Lovejoy would completely dissipate due to the intense solar baking, the plucky comet amazingly emerged on the far side of the sun a short time later—shining nearly as bright as it did before its close encounter.

However, after having barnstormed the sun, the latest analyses of the images show that, even though the singed comet appears to have survived, it’s not without wounds. The comet’s tail—composed of dust and gas shed from the vaporizing core—has been lost. Remnants of the tail appear to be visible in images along the track the inbound comet took before reaching the sun.

The comet's tail and detached head are seen on opposite sides of the sun. Credit: NASA/SOHO

Now, having survived, the severed head of the comet, less than a day after grazing the sun is already showing evidence of growing a new tail.

With at least five spacecraft trained on the fiery event these past days, astronomers hope to learn a lot more not only about Lovejoy and other sungrazer comets but also about how the sun works and its impact on Earth.

Karl Bottoms, of Naval Research Lab in Washington D.C., said on his Sungrazing comet website today, “Objects like this can also provide us with a tremendous amount of information about the solar wind and conditions in the solar corona, which in turn allows us to gain more understanding of the Sun as a driver of “Space Weather” at Earth (it’s one of the reasons my group is interested in sungrazing comets).”

Now that the main event is over, the race is on to see if anyone can pick up comet Lovejoy through ground-based telescopes as it departs the sun along its 400-year orbit. Bets are that it will take at least two to five days looking for the comet in the morning sky just before sunrise.

But after seeing how comet Lovejoy has fooled astronomers already, who knows what this little comet has in store for observers.


Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.


  1. Mabel
    August 20, 2013, 9:13 pm

    Yay comet! Go, little buddy!

    I remember the Hale-Bopp. I was living out in the country at that time, and the view was spectacular. I wish I would have known how to take a picture of it. Sure would like to see something like that again (provided it’s not headed right at us!).

  2. […] recent sungrazer, Comet Lovejoy, skimmed the sun’s surface in December 2011 and survived the encounter. That comet showed even stronger tail perturbations in the corona—”we saw it flit around […]

  3. […] The sungrazing comet Lovejoy has been creation utterly a dash down underneath given it survived a tighten confront with a Sun, […]

  4. […] The sungrazing comet Lovejoy has been making quite a splash down under since it survived its close encounter with our Sun, […]

  5. […] The sungrazing comet Lovejoy has been making quite a splash down under since it survived its close encounter with our Sun, […]

  6. MDel
    December 18, 2011, 1:32 pm

    That wasn’t a comet at all. It was the Silver Surfer…and beware Earthlings…Galactus isn’t far behind!!!

  7. Ritz Cracker with Cheese
    San Francisco Downtown
    December 17, 2011, 4:01 pm

    Is the object hotter than the sun or just the same temperature?

  8. Ima Ryma
    December 17, 2011, 11:59 am

    ‘Twas the plucky comet that could
    Barnstorm the sun and live to show
    An earthly audience that ‘twould
    Be amazed how Lovejoy did go
    Right through the million degree heat,
    Smacking a kiss on solar lips.
    All in all, ’twas a smooch so sweet.
    Then off in a flash, Lovejoy zips.
    The close encounter, some loss ’tis.
    But Lovejoy’s growing a new tail,
    Small price to pay in this show biz,
    Performing hot in such grand scale.

    Lovejoy shows are booking through space.
    Check your listings for time and place.

  9. Alex
    December 17, 2011, 3:42 am

    In the video you can see the tail snaking. Videos like this one, really can provide us with a huge amount of information about the solar wind

  10. […] of the sun a short time later—shining nearly as bright as it did before its close encounter. ~ National Geographic Rate this: Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  11. Leonard
    December 16, 2011, 5:56 pm

    The tail appears to be trailing the comet not pointing away from the sun, what’s up with that?

  12. vardaman
    December 16, 2011, 5:16 pm

    No the footage shows the tail still there.

    • Andrew Fazekas
      December 16, 2011, 5:27 pm

      Indeed latest images show a tail reappearing and so veteran comet observers are hoping that the comet may become visible in Southern Hemisphere skies over the course of the next few days.

  13. jcibarra
    December 16, 2011, 4:22 pm

    more than the event itself…the technology to capture it!!!

  14. […] Comet Stays Alive After Buzzing SunNational GeographicMuch to everyone's surprise, comet Lovejoy has survived its heated encounter with the Sun late yesterday. Between the hours of 7 and 8pm (ET), cameras aboard of NASA 's sun watching satellite, the Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO), had a ring side seat …Comet Lovejoy Survives Brush With the SunPC MagazineTake that Icarus: Comet shows you can get really close to sun and survive …Washington PostLovejoy lived!WKRG-TVSpace.com -ABC News -Astronomy Magazineall 309 news articles » […]