Lovejoy Lives! Comet Survives Hellish Encounter With Sun

You would have been very optimistic if, before Comet Lovejoy's apparent suicidal near-miss of the sun's surface, you'd placed a bet on the icy interloper's survival. But if you did, you'd be laughing all the way to the bank.

This is why I don't gamble. I was anything but optimistic of the chances that the Kreutz Sungrazing comet -- officially designated as C/2011 W3 (Lovejoy) -- would live through the hellish temperatures it endured as it made its death-defying solar dive.

But as NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) watched the comet emerge from the other side of the sun Thursday evening, Comet Lovejoy proved the doubters wrong and continued its orbit after passing only 87,000 miles above the sun's photosphere. In doing so, it had endured temperatures of over a million degrees Celsius.

"Breaking News! Lovejoy lives! The comet survived its journey around the sun to reemerge on the other side," exclaimed the SDO's Twitter feed after seeing the singed comet race away from our nearest star.

It goes to show that, in space, you can never take anything for granted.

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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 made its closest solar approach on Thursday, Dec. 15, at about 7 p.m. EST -- when it was only 87,000 miles from the churning solar "surface" of the sun, called the photosphere.

At these hellish depths of the solar atmosphere, the comet endured the extreme coronal environment where temperatures can soar to millions of degrees.

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.