Before the invention of the telescope, comets seemed to appear out of nowhere and mysteriously vanish from sight. Coments were usually considered bad omens of deaths of kings or noble men, coming catastrophes, or even interpreted as attacks by heavenly beings against terrestrial inhabitants.
From ancient sources, such as Chinese oracle bones, it is known that their appearances have been noticed by humans for millennia. Some authorities interpret references to falling stars in Gilgamesh, the Book of Revelation and the Book of Enoch as references to comets. Fortunately, astronomy has become considerably advanced.
Now, a stunning new video (click here to view video) of Comet Lovejoy – known as the Christmas comet – has filmed by the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Paranal Observatory in Chile. The comet graced the southern sky after it had unexpectedly survived a close encounter with the Sun. It was discovered on November 27, 2011, by amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy. It has been the talk of the astronomy community over the past few weeks.
Lovejoy belongs to a member of a family of comets thought to come from the break-up of one single large comet in the 12th Century that now orbit the Sun along the same path. Just last week, the comet entered the Sun’s corona, a much-anticipated event, passing a mere 140,000 kilometers from the Sun’s surface. A close shave indeed!
The comet was expected to break up and vaporize, but instead it survived its steaming hot encounter with the Sun and re-emerged a few days later, much to everyone’s surprise. It is now visible from the southern hemisphere, appearing at dawn, and features a bright tail millions of kilometers long, composed of dust particles that are being blown ahead of the comet by the solar wind.
A new time-lapse video sequence was taken by Gabriel Brammer from ESO less than two days ago on December 22, 2011. Gabriel was finishing his shift as support astronomer at the Paranal Observatory when Comet Lovejoy rose over the horizon just before dawn.
“On the last morning of my shift, I tried to try catch it on camera before sunrise. The tail of the comet was easily visible with the naked eye, and the combination of the crescent Moon, comet, Milky Way and the laser guide star was nearly as impressive to the naked eye as it appears in the long-exposure photos.”
This bright comet was also seen from the International Space Station in another stunning time-lapse sequence on December 21 as the crew filmed lightning on Earth’s night side. Lovejoy will now continue in its highly eccentric orbit around the Sun and once again disappear into the distant Solar System. It would be interesting to know if it will actually survive to re-appear in our skies in 314 years as predicted.
Sources: European Southern Observatory (ESO) and Science Daily