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Comet Lovejoy (C/2011 W3)

posted Dec 26, 2011, 4:50 PM by Unknown user
Monday the 26th of December at 4am it was my luck to see comet Lovejoy hanging in the sky to the East! It is a wonderful sight.

This comet was discovered on its way towards the Sun on the 27th of November 2011 by Terry Lovejoy, an amateur astronomer from Brisbane, Australia.

On the 16th of December it made a very close pass around the Sun, that's why it is called a 'sungrazer'.

Although some sources disagree on exactly how close this comet passed around the Sun, most say it passed about 140,000 km from the surface of the Sun. This is incredibly close! It is less than half the distance between the Moon and the Earth.. The comet passed through the Corona of the Sun, which is extremely hot, even hotter than the surface of the Sun.

Because comets are partially made of water ice (mixed with rock and dust), it was severely affected by the solar heat. Like holding an ice cube above the BBQ..! During this very close encounter, the comet lost a lot of ice and also its tail. It is quite rare for comets to pass that close to the Sun, and survive.

Soon after reappearing from its encounter with the Sun, the tail grew back again!

The comet is now on its way back to the outer reaches of the solar system.

These photos were made with a compact camera on a tripod, using 60 second exposures and ISO values between 200 and 400 (did not use auto guiding, or image stacking software).

Location: Queen St East, Levin.

The sky map shown below is from Cartes du Ciel v3.0 (freeware). It shows where the comet was when these photos were taken.

You can see the comet was just heading away from the tail of Scorpius the scorpion. The comet is heading due South towards the Ara constellation.

The website shows a sky map which you can use to estimate where to search for the comet in the early morning sky.

At 1.50am the tail of the comet could already be seen rising above the Tararuas. To see the nucleus of the comet (its head) and its tail, I'd recommend to start observing at 3am if you can see right down to the Eastern horizon, otherwise certainly no later than 4am, or the sky will be too bright to spot the comet.

In the coming days, will the comet become more visible, or less? Who knows?

Only one tail was visible to me. Can you see a second tail?

Keep looking up,
Mike Stapel

P.S. Recommended reading:

About comet Lovejoy C/2011 W3:

About comets: