Friday, December 23, 2011

A Snowball's Chance in Hell

Comet Lovejoy – what a nice name! – has evidently taken Churchill's advice to heart: "If you're going through hell, keep going."  It rounded the Sun on the 16th of December, only a few weeks after its discovery, in what was thought to have been a suicidal plunge to within 150,000 km of the torrid, roiling surface of our star, passing through the very corona, the superheated atmosphere thereof – and survived perihelion passage.  Now, having proven that a snowball does indeed have a chance in hell, it is manifesting a beautiful pre-dawn tail as seen from earth.  I've arisen before the morning to try and sight it, but clouds have blocked my view so far...

Comet Lovejoy is a member of that class of icy bodies known as Kreutz sungrazers; many are spotted yearly by space-based observatories, but nearly all evaporate when they follow in the way of Icarus of old.  The few, larger, sungrazers instead blossom and brighten into the greatest of the comets: while Comet Lovejoy is not perhaps of that magnitude, it is still a beautiful sight.  Southern hemisphere readers, set your alarm clocks for 4 am and try and see the comet rising ahead of the sun - apparently, it looks rather like the beam of a car headlight shining straight up from the horizon.

Don't miss it - it won't be back for another apparition until the 24th century.

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