Sungrazing comet Lovejoy may light up the sky
[update 2011.12.19: It survived! See it with your own eye - finder charts here]
Just the other day, Australian astro-buff Terry Lovejoy picked up a new comet. Well, he discovered it. It was soon identified as a likely Kreutz sungrazer, and, as you read this, is plummeting sunward at a dizzying pace. Rendezvous: December 16. Chance of survival: I wouldn't bet on it.
In the wake of the comet's almost-certain death there's the thrilling prospect that, shortly before oblivion, it will become very bright as it evaporates in the solar fury. And then we'll have a lovely pre-Xmas comet for some end-of-year astronomy outreach.
Earlier, euphoric about this prospect and with more journalistic licence than is decent, I incorrectly wrote that the comet would crash into the Sun. Dr JosÚ Luis Galache, staff astronomer at the IAU's Minor Planet Center (Cambridge, USA), kindly pointed out that it won't be colliding with our star. "It'll pass around 186,000 km from the Sun's surface and probably break up and evaporate," he wrote, "but even if it doesn't, it won't hit the Sun."
The comet is currently in Lupus (at about 12th magnitude) and will move into Norma, Scorpius, and finally into Ophiuchus and oblivion.
The table gives the ephemeris from JPL's HORIZONS; you can also visit heavens-above.com for a star chart (links below).
Dec 03: RA 14h 36m 20.54s, Dec -51░ 16' 59.3" (Lupus)
Dec 04: RA 14h 57m 00.66s, Dec -50░ 24' 19.7" (Lupus)
Dec 05: RA 15h 16m 55.99s, Dec -49░ 16' 19.5" (Lupus)
Dec 06: RA 15h 35m 51.83s, Dec -47░ 54' 02.9" (Lupus)
Dec 07: RA 15h 53m 37.78s, Dec -46░ 18' 53.7" (Norma)
Dec 08: RA 16h 10m 07.78s, Dec -44░ 32' 24.9" (Norma)
Dec 09: RA 16h 25m 19.40s, Dec -42░ 36' 08.5" (Norma)
Dec 10: RA 16h 39m 13.04s, Dec -40░ 31' 25.0" (Scorpius)
Dec 11: RA 16h 51m 50.93s, Dec -38░ 19' 12.5" (Scorpius)
Dec 12: RA 17h 03m 16.17s, Dec -35░ 59' 51.4" (Scorpius)
Dec 13: RA 17h 13m 31.63s, Dec -33░ 32' 36.6" (Scorpius)
Dec 14: RA 17h 22m 38.03s, Dec -30░ 54' 25.8" (Scorpius)
Dec 15: RA 17h 30m 26.79s, Dec -27░ 55' 17.3" (Ophiuchus)
Dec 16: RA 17h 32m 01.77s, Dec -23░ 05' 17.3" (Ophiuchus)
nothing more to see. please move along.