The Survival of Comet Lovejoy (C/2011 W3), A Once in a Generation Event

Comet Lovejoy nears its perihelion. Image courtesy NRL.

Lowell Observatory postdoctoral research scientist Matthew Knight has been quite busy the last few days. Comet Lovejoy (C/2011 W3), a recently discovered “Kreutz sungrazing comet,” reached perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) last night and did something none of the more than 1,600 Kreutz comets observed since 1970 has done: it survived!

Dr. Knight studied sungrazing comets observed by the SOHO satellite for his Ph.D. thesis at the University of Maryland. Now a post-doc at Lowell Observatory, he recently received a grant from NASA to expand these studies, so when Comet Lovejoy was discovered in late November, he was expertly prepared to study it.

Comet Lovejoy was the first Kreutz comet to be discovered from the ground since 1970. This gave scientists about a week’s worth of lead time to prepare observations using several spacecraft which normally study the Sun. Dr. Knight consulted with colleagues at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) to optimize observations, using shorter than normal exposure times and cycling through different filters more frequently in order to prevent the comet from saturating the cameras and to learn more about its composition in the process.

Comet Lovejoy first appeared in SOHO images early on Wednesday. Since then, Dr. Knight has been measuring its brightness and studying its changing shape, reporting his preliminary findings in near-real time to the NRL team so that subsequent observations could be improved. Lovejoy surpassed all reasonable expectations, temporarily rivaling Venus in brightness and surviving its journey to the very edge of the Sun. This caught Dr. Knight and collaborators by surprise, but they are delighted by the new developments. “It has been more than 40 years since something like this happened, and we did not have the kinds of telescopic capabilities then that we have today,” says Dr. Knight, “I am furiously looking at data as it arrives from the numerous telescopes in space which managed to observe Comet Lovejoy, and I anticipate many groundbreaking discoveries to come out of these remarkable observations.”

For more information, contact Chuck Wendt at cwendt[at]lowell[dot]edu, (928) 233-3201, or Tom Vitron at tvitron[at]lowell[dot]edu, (928) 233-3260.

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