Christmas Comet Lovejoy captured at Paranal

After this comet survived a close encounter with the Sun, astronomers and imagers have snapped exceptional photos of the object.
By | Published: December 27, 2011 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Comet Lovejoy captured at Paranal. ESO
The recently discovered Comet Lovejoy has been captured in stunning photos and time-lapse video taken from the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Paranal Observatory in Chile. The object, designated Comet 2011/W3 (Lovejoy), graced the southern sky after it had unexpectedly survived a close encounter with the Sun.
Gabriel Brammer from ESO captured a new time-lapse video sequence 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 catch it on camera before sunrise,” said Brammer. “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.”

The sequence also features the pencil-thin beam of the Very Large Telescope’s (VLT) Laser Guide Star set against the beautiful backdrop of the Milky Way as astronomers conduct their last observations for the night.

Guillaume Blanchard from ESO made a marvelous wide-angle photo of Comet Lovejoy and Yuri Beletsky, also from ESO, captured the spectacle from Santiago, Chile. “For me, this comet is a Christmas present to the people who will stay at Paranal over Christmas,” said Blanchard.

This bright comet was also seen from the International Space Station December 21 as the crew filmed lightning on Earth’s night side.

Comet Lovejoy has been the talk of the astronomy community over the past few weeks. It was discovered November 27, 2011, by the Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy and was classified as a Kreutz sungrazer, with its orbit taking it very close to the Sun. Just two week ago, the comet entered the Sun’s corona, a much-anticipated event, passing a mere 87,000 miles (140,000 kilometers) from the Sun’s surface.

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 miles long composed of dust particles that are being blown away from the comet by the solar wind.

Lovejoy will now continue 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.