Like Icarus, a brush with the sun; and a tale of a tail

NASA/courtesy of nasaimages.org

A recently featured post here, the rat as hero, seems to have opened the door to other unlikely heroes. Here’s a hero even farther out. Please take this adjective farther very literally because I’m talking comet. This past week a small comet defied what astronomers expected would be certain destruction in a close orbital encounter with the sun and re-emerged to continue on its way. Understand, a comet isn’t sentient so it can’t possibly be considered a hero in the same sense as a human. But this is certainly as close as a dirtball can come to being a hero!

I say dirtball not out of disrespect, but because this comet, like most comets, consists of dust and ice. While it is a rather insignificant comet, as comets go, the hero has acquired a name—Lovejoy—the surname of its amateur astronomer discoverer who found it on December 2nd of this year.

To quote from NASA’s Dec 16 story, Comet Lovejoy Plunges into the Sun and Survives, “Researchers quickly realized that the new find was a member of the Kreutz family of sungrazing comets.  Named after the German astronomer Heinrich Kreutz, who first studied them, Kreutz sungrazers are fragments of a single giant comet that broke apart back in the 12th century (probably the Great Comet of 1106).”

Comet Lovejoy created a sensation because, unlike Icarus in Greek mythology, it survived the brush with the sun. As the comet pivoted around the sun at a distance of about 75,000 miles, it broiled in temperatures of up to several million degrees for nearly an hour and no one expected it to emerge. It did. However, Lovejoy sweated away about 90% of its mass, and to add insult to injury, lost its tail to the sun’s magnetic field in the process, something akin to a lizard losing its tail when evading capture.

The best explanation for the comet’s survival: its mass was underestimated. Lovejoy will return in eight or nine hundred years, but won’t survive that close an encounter again. Oh, and in case you don’t recall the story of Icarus, he was a mortal who tried to escape from the island of Crete with wings his father constructed for him from feathers and wax. To his regret, when Icarus ignored a warning and flew too close to the sun, the wax melted and he plunged to his death. I think there might be a message to all of us in that story, particularly to this hero blogger as he expands the hero definition!

More information on this comet can be found by using the search terms Lovejoy comet. Watch this NASA video to see the comet emerging from its encounter. But look quick.

Story from the Seattle Times, Dec 17, 2011:
Comet survives close encounter with sun


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