So, NASA has had its eye on a newly-discovered comet called Comet Lovejoy that has been headed directly toward the burning hot sun. Lovejoy is particularly interesting because it is one of a group of comets called Kreutz sungrazers*, believed to be fragments of a much larger comet that broke up as it passed too close to the sun. We like sungrazers because, once in a while, one of them will splash into the sun, which makes for a great picture and also gives us a chance to do a little science about what happens when you chunk a big rock into the sun.
Okay, there are other useful things we can learn, but I’m mostly interested in the pictures and the rock-chunking parts.
But, back to Lovejoy. The folks at NASA expected Lovejoy to burn up as it got very close to the sun, which would give them the chance to see (for the first time, by the way) what happens when a very large comet vaporizes completely. NASA tasked 5 satellites to observe Lovejoy, including SOHO, STEREO, and the SDO . In short, the agency put a lot of instruments on one comet, and hoped to get some good science out of it. Well, they did, but not in the way they expected.
Yesterday, Comet Lovejoy plunged toward the sun, dove into the corona, then dove right back out, apparently no worse for the trip. Let me repeat that with a couple more details. Comet Lovejoy dove into an inferno that is some 200 times hotter than the surface of the sun (to be more exact, between 2 and 4 million Kelvin) with a force of gravity roughly 28 times what it is here on Earth and flew back out not broken up into tiny pieces. Apparently, it was a heck of a lot larger than scientists believed it was — roughly 1.1 million tons — and its size is what made it impervious to the solar grinder. Well, that and its Chuck Norris nature. I guess we should all be fortunate that Lovejoy didn’t spin-kick the sun out of its grand galactic orbit.
I can’t wait to see what sort of interesting things we learn from this.
*By the way, you will not believe the gasps of amazement and admiration you will get from your friends when you drop the phrase “Kreutz sungrazers” into casual conversation. Try it at your company Christmas party (possibly with a Santa Claus reference at the same time. Bonus!).