Changing Planet

Death-Diving Comet May Be Visible to Naked Eye

Discovered only two weeks ago, the kamikazi comet Lovejoy is currently on course for a fiery demise, plunging toward the sun. But before this icy, 200-meter-wide visitor disintegrates, there is a small chance it may become visible to the naked eye during broad daylight today.

Comet Lovejoy approaching the sun, as seen by NASA’s SOHO satellite.

With a flotilla of space satellites training its sights on the fatal space show, the doomed comet is expected to dive down to its closest point to the sun’s surface around 7 p.m. ET today, careening through the solar atmosphere at only 120,000 kilometers above the fiery surface.

Comet C/2011 W3—also known as Lovejoy—is named after its discoverer, veteran comet hunter Terry Lovejoy, and has been continuously monitored using NASA’s SOHO sun-watching satellite.

The comet belongs to a group of sungrazers known as Kreutz comets, which are thought to be fragments of a much larger comet that long ago broke apart. Hundreds of Kreutz sungrazers have been discovered via digital images combed through by armchair astronomers as the icy bodies undergo their spectacular death dives into the sun. But Lovejoy is thought to be one of the brightest ever seen.

Set of images of comet Lovejoy plunging toward sun taken on Dec. 12 by NASA's STEREO satellites

Astronomers watching Lovejoy’s progress have been surprised by its brightness, which has so far outperformed many predictions—but the best may be yet to come.

The latest brightness calculations show that over the course of the day, Lovejoy may become as bright at the planets Venus and Jupiter, seen from Earth, and the comet has a slim chance of reaching naked-eye level brightness in daytime skies across North America.

Such an event has happened before. According to NASA, in 1965 the Kreutz comet Ikeya-Seki was so bright it could be seen during the day with the naked eye by blocking out the sun with your hand.

Karl Bottoms, a scientist at Naval Research Lab in Washington D.C., who has been monitoring the action, said in a recent post on the Sungrazing comet website, “If Comet Lovejoy gets as bright as mag -4 or -5, there is a tiny but non-zero chance that it could be visible in the sky next to the Sun by simply blocking the Sun out behind a tall building, for example.

“It will be reaching perihelion [the closest point to the sun] right around sunset time for people in the US East, Central, Mountain, and Pacific time zones, so if you have one of those nice sunsets where you can actually look right at the Sun, be on the watch for the comet on the left of the Sun (for northern hemisphere observers).”

(Important: Do NOT look or point a telescope or binoculars at or near the sun! It can and will badly damage your eyesight.)

Safe alternative to catching Lovejoy’s date with the Sun tonight – watch NASA’s special online coverage with LIVE satellite images of the Sun. Who knows, you may actually be able to watch the comet’s demise on your computer screen.

 

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.

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.

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