Late last week scientists witnessed something they wouldn’t have considered possible if they hadn’t seen it for themselves.
At about 7:00 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 15, an icy comet flew right through the multimillion-degree atmosphere of the sun – and survived fully intact.
As Comet Lovejoy passed through the solar corona, it came within approximately 140,000 kilometers of the sun’s surface.
Most scientific observers expected Lovejoy, which was first spotted on Dec. 2 2011, to be destroyed by the blazing heat. Instead, it survived, although it ended up much smaller after its close encounter with the sun.
The comet’s core was estimated to be about 500 meters in diameter before it plunged into the sun, which is what probably helped it survive the solar heat.
The comet’s journey was observed by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and twin STEREO probes, Europe’s Proba2 microsatellite, and the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory – all spacecraft which help keep track of the goings-on of the sun.
Of all of the images captured of the event, NASA’s footage is among the most compelling. The SDO caught Comet Lovejoy entering the sun’s scorching atmosphere and then coming back out again.
Although the comet did remain intact after its encounter with the sun, scientist Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C., says Lovejoy’s days could be numbered.
“There is still a possibility that Comet Lovejoy will start to fragment. It’s been through a tremendously traumatic event. Structurally, it could be extremely weak. On the other hand, it could hold itself together and disappear back into the recesses of the solar system.”