At approximately 7 p.m. EST Thursday, we will know the fate of Comet Lovejoy, a kamikaze comet diving toward the sun at speeds that will reach 1 million miles per hour when it is closest to the sun.
Passing a mere 87,000 miles above the searing 11,000 degree surface of the sun, Comet Lovejoy has little chance of surviving the encounter. What’s more, the whole encounter is being watched in near real time using NASA’s Solar Heliospheric Observatory – SOHO.
The comet was announced on Dec. 2 shortly after its discovery by an Australian named Terry Lovejoy and as tradition goes, the comet was named for its discoverer. By the way, the all-time comet ﬁnder is none other than SOHO itself, with over 2,000 comets (and counting) to its credit.
Soon after Comet Lovejoy’s discovery, the orbital parameters showed that this comet probably did not have long to live as it was going to pass very, very close to the sun. Part of the Kreutz group of sun grazing comets, Comet Lovejoy joins a long line of comets that have met their fate by passing too close to the sun.
The Kreutz group of comets is thought to be remnants of a great comet that broke apart centuries ago and is the source of these sun-diving comets. One of the greatest comets of all time, Ikeya-Seki, was a member of the Kreutz group and became so bright in 1965 that it was visible in daylight and was an incredible sight to see.
Comet Lovejoy will probably not become visible in daylight. How this 4.5 billion year old piece of solar system history will meet its fate is not known. Being about two football ﬁelds in size it is thought to be too small to survive the ravages of the sun and will probably be destroyed.
Will it become a great cloud of cometary debris visible to SOHO? Or will it just meet its doom quietly with no witnesses on the farside of the Sun. We will know by the end of today.
To learn more about these sun-grazing comets, follow this link.
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