Christmas comet surprises astronaut

A brilliant new “star of wonder” is wowing people in parts of the world who have seen it appear in the east right before Christmas. The impressive spectacle is being put on by a comet called Lovejoy that amazingly survived a close brush with the Sun a week ago.

A shot from the VLT video (G Brammer)

Since then it has grown a long, bright tail that rises before it above the eastern horizon shortly before dawn. The comet cannot be seen from northern countries where the Sun rises before it. But it looks magnificent from countries such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

The heavenly apparition came as a surprise to astronauts aboard the International Space Station as they watched it lifting up over the Earth. ISS Commander Dan Burbank was photographing lightning storms over the Pacific when he spotted the celestial visitor. He called it “the most amazing thing I have ever seen in space.”

NASA have stitched his sequence of photos of the phenomenon into a must-see video. Another stunning movie of the brilliant comet against a sky rich with stars was taken from the European Southern Observatory’s site at Paranal in Chile, by staff astronomer Gabriel Brammer.

Last weekend, Comet Lovejoy skimmed just 140,000 km (87,000 miles) above the Sun’s surface, a close encounter that no one thought it could survive as it is around a third of the distance of the Moon from the Earth.

But far from being vaporised, the comet came through remarkably unscathed. It lost its tail, but swiftly grew a new one, many millions of kilometres long, as it headed away from the Sun again.

The comet, discovered by Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy from Brisbane, was the brightest that NASA’s sun-watching space observatory SOHO had ever photographed.

Robin Scagell, of the Society for Popular Astronomy said: “If there really was a Star of Bethlehem then it could have been a brilliant, fleeting comet like this one. It is a shame we can’t see it from the UK, but there are some fantastic pictures appearing on the web.”

Scientists believe Comet Lovejoy is just one fragment of a vast supercomet that broke up in the 12th century. The resulting debris, now orbiting in the solar system as smaller comets, is known as the Kreutz family.

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