C/2011 W3 (Lovejoy)

Last updated
C/2011 W3 (Lovejoy)
Iss030e015472 Edit.jpg
Comet Lovejoy photographed by Dan Burbank aboard the ISS, 21 December 2011
Discovered by Terry Lovejoy
Discovery date27 November 2011
Orbital characteristics A
Epoch JD 2455901.5
(6 December 2011)
Aphelion 157.36±0.50  AU
Perihelion 0.00555 AU
Semi-major axis 78.68±0.25 AU
Eccentricity 0.99993
Orbital period ~622 a (epoch 2050) [1]
Max. orbital speed 565 km/s
Inclination 134.36°±0.002°
Node 326.369°
Argument of
Mean anomaly 359.986°
Last perihelion16 December 2011
Next perihelionc. 2633? [1]

Comet Lovejoy, formally designated C/2011 W3 (Lovejoy), is a long-period comet and Kreutz sungrazer. It was discovered in November 2011 by Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy. The comet's perihelion took it through the Sun's corona on 16 December 2011, after which it emerged intact, though greatly impacted by the event.


As Comet Lovejoy was announced on the 16th anniversary of the SOHO satellite's launch it became known as "The Great Birthday Comet of 2011", and because it was visible from Earth during the Christmas holiday it was also nicknamed "The Great Christmas Comet of 2011". [2] [3]


Comet Lovejoy was discovered on 27 November 2011 by Terry Lovejoy of Thornlands, Queensland, during a comet survey using a 20 cm (7.9 in) Schmidt–Cassegrain telescope and a QHY9 CCD camera. [4] It is the third comet discovered by Terry Lovejoy. He reported that it was "a rapidly moving fuzzy object" of 13th magnitude, and additional observations were made by him over the next couple of nights. [4] [5]

Independent confirmation of the comet did not come until 1 December, when it was observed by Alan Gilmore and Pamela Kilmartin at the Mount John University Observatory in New Zealand, using its 100 cm (39 in) McLellan Telescope. Upon confirmation, an official report was made to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, and the comet's existence was announced by the Minor Planet Center on 2 December. [4] It is the first Kreutz-group comet discovered by ground-based observation in 40 years. [6]


The first orbital elements using an assumed parabolic trajectory were published by Gareth Williams of the Minor Planet Center on 2 December, with an estimated perihelion of 0.0059 AU occurring near midnight UTC of 15/16 December. Further refinements were published during subsequent days, including one on 5 December, estimating perihelion at 0.0056 AU just before midnight on 15 December. On 11 December the first elliptical orbit was published, estimating perihelion at 0.0055 AU just after midnight on 16 December. [4] [7]

In space, the comet first became visible to the STEREO-A spacecraft on 3 December, and to the SOHO spacecraft on 14 December. As the comet approached the Sun it was observed by eighteen instruments on six satellites: STEREO-A and -B, SOHO, SDO, Hinode and PROBA2. [8] [9]

A small companion comet was detected in SOHO images on 14 December by Zhijian Xu, and later spotted by the twin STEREO spacecraft. [2] [10] It is believed to be a fragment of Comet Lovejoy that broke away several decades ago. This discovery was not unexpected, as Kreutz-group comets are often found with smaller companions. [2] [11]

At its brightest, Comet Lovejoy had an apparent magnitude of between –3 and –4, which is about as bright as the planet Venus. [8] [12] It is the brightest sungrazing comet ever observed by SOHO, and the brightest comet to appear since Comet McNaught of 2007, which shone at visual magnitude –5.5. [2] [13] Nevertheless, Lovejoy was largely invisible to the naked eye during its peak brightness due to its proximity to the Sun. [3] [11]

Comet 2011 W3 Lovejoy sky trajectory.png
Sky trajectory and daily motion
Comet 2011 W3 Lovejoy sky orbit.png
Orbit viewed above ecliptic plane


Comet Lovejoy reached perihelion on 16 December 2011 at 00:17 UTC, as it passed approximately 140,000 kilometres (87,000 mi) above the Sun's surface [14] [15] at a speed of 536 km/s (333 mi/s), or 0.18% the speed of light. [16] It was not expected to survive the encounter due to extreme conditions in the corona, such as temperatures reaching more than one million kelvins and the exposure time of nearly an hour. However, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), as well as other Sun-monitoring spacecraft, observed the comet emerge from the corona intact. [17] [18] [19] The STEREO and SOHO spacecraft continued to observe the comet as it moved away from the Sun. [19]

Before perihelion, the nucleus of Comet Lovejoy had been estimated to be between 100 and 200 metres (330 and 660 ft) in diameter. Since the comet survived perihelion, it is thought that the nucleus must have been larger, perhaps up to 500 metres (1,600 ft). [20] During the coronal passage, it is believed that a significant fraction of the comet's mass was burned off. [19]

Outbound flight

The first ground-based observation of Comet Lovejoy post-perihelion occurred on 16 December at 19:55 UTC, when it was seen by Rick Baldridge and Brian Day of the Foothill Observatory. Baldridge estimated the comet at magnitude −1. [4] The comet's discoverer, Terry Lovejoy, made a pair of observations on 17 December at 01:12 and 20:24 UTC, with apparent magnitudes estimated at −1.2and −0.8, respectively. [4]

Images taken on 20 December around 08:00 UTC suggested that the comet had undergone significant changes. Taken by Czech astronomer Jakub Černý using the robotic FRAM telescope at Pierre Auger Observatory, the images indicated that "the nucleus had apparently become bar-shaped and was accompanied by a bright tail ray." [4] [21]

Comet Lovejoy re-emerged as a naked eye object in the Southern Hemisphere around 21–22 December, [22] when astronaut Dan Burbank photographed it from the International Space Station. [23] [24] Ground-based photographers continued to capture images of the comet, which had dimmed to around 4th magnitude. [23] While Lovejoy would have continued to be visible to Southern Hemisphere observers into early 2012, large telescopes would have been required to see the comet by the time it crossed into the Northern Hemisphere in February. [3]

Some concern was expressed after perihelion that the stresses induced in the comet by its close approach to the Sun might result in its disintegration. [8] That observers were unable to locate a distinct nucleus amidst the more visible tail furthered this idea; [3] using observations from the Pierre Auger Observatory, Zdeněk Sekanina and Paul Chodas determined that, while the nucleus did survive perihelion for several days, following a significant outburst of dust on 19 December, the nucleus underwent a "cataclysmic fragmentation" event on 20 December and completely disappeared. [25]

In the event that some portion of the nucleus did survive, the eccentricity and inclination of Comet Lovejoy's orbit avoids significant perturbation from planets, which leaves the possibility that the comet may return for another perihelion. [8] Using an epoch 2050 solution, Comet Lovejoy is estimated to have about a 622-year orbit and a return to perihelion around the year 2633. [1]

Possible fragmentation history

An elliptical orbit calculated by Sekanina and Chodas in 2012 indicates that Comet Lovejoy is a fragment of an unrecorded sungrazer that reached perihelion around 1329. The fragmentation history suggested by these authors is that a parent sungrazer, likely the comet observed in 467  CE, split near the Sun due to tidal forces during its pass. The principal fragment or a non-tidally fragmented portion of it returned as the Great Comet of 1106, but a secondary fragment was imparted a longer orbital period and returned about 1329. This secondary also split at perihelion and its principal fragment will return around 2200, likely as a cluster of further fragments. A secondary fragment of this event left on a shorter period that theoretically should have brought it back to the inner solar system during the early years of the 21st century. At some point after perihelion, this secondary fragment broke apart due to non-tidal forces and one of the resulting fragments became Comet Lovejoy.[ clarification needed ] Other similar fragments may also exist and might return as sungrazers in the near future. [25]

Related Research Articles

Solar and Heliospheric Observatory European space observatory

The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) is a European Space Agency (ESA) spacecraft built by a European industrial consortium led by Matra Marconi Space that was launched on a Lockheed Martin Atlas IIAS launch vehicle on 2 December 1995, to study the Sun. It has also discovered over 4,000 comets. It began normal operations in May 1996. It is a joint project between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA. SOHO was part of the International Solar Terrestrial Physics Program (ISTP). Originally planned as a two-year mission, SOHO continues to operate after over 25 years in space; the mission has been extended until the end of 2025, subject to review and confirmation by ESA's Science Programme Committee.

Comet Encke Periodic comet with 3-year orbit

Comet Encke, or Encke's Comet, is a periodic comet that completes an orbit of the Sun once every 3.3 years. Encke was first recorded by Pierre Méchain on 17 January 1786, but it was not recognized as a periodic comet until 1819 when its orbit was computed by Johann Franz Encke. Like Halley's Comet, it is unusual in its being named after the calculator of its orbit rather than its discoverer. Like most comets, it has a very low albedo, reflecting only 4.6% of the light its nucleus receives, although comets generate a large coma and tail that can make them much more visible during their perihelion. The diameter of the nucleus of Encke's Comet is 4.8 km.

Sungrazing comet Comet that is extremely close to the sun during part of its orbit

A sungrazing comet is a comet that passes extremely close to the Sun at perihelion – sometimes within a few thousand kilometres of the Sun's surface. Although small sungrazers can completely evaporate during such a close approach to the Sun, larger sungrazers can survive many perihelion passages. However, the strong evaporation and tidal forces they experience often lead to their fragmentation.

Great Comet of 1882 Astronomical object

The Great Comet of 1882 formally designated C/1882 R1, 1882 II, and 1882b, was a comet which became very bright in September 1882. It was a member of the Kreutz Sungrazers, a family of comets which pass within 1 R of the Sun's photosphere at perihelion. The comet was bright enough to be visible next to the Sun in the daytime sky at its perihelion.

The Kreutz sungrazers are a family of sungrazing comets, characterized by orbits taking them extremely close to the Sun at perihelion. They are believed to be fragments of one large comet that broke up several centuries ago and are named for German astronomer Heinrich Kreutz, who first demonstrated that they were related. A Kreutz sungrazers's aphelion is about 170 AU from the Sun; these sungrazers make their way from the distant outer Solar System from a patch in the sky in Canis Major, to the inner Solar System, to their perihelion point near the Sun, and then leave the inner Solar System in their return trip to their aphelion.

Comet Pereyra was a bright comet which appeared in 1963. It was a member of the Kreutz Sungrazers, a group of comets which pass extremely close to the Sun.

STEREO Solar observation mission

STEREO is a solar observation mission. Two nearly identical spacecraft were launched in 2006 into orbits around the Sun that cause them to respectively pull farther ahead of and fall gradually behind the Earth. This enabled stereoscopic imaging of the Sun and solar phenomena, such as coronal mass ejections.

96P/Machholz Periodic comet with 5 year orbit

Comet 96P/Machholz or 96P/Machholz 1 is a short-period sungrazing comet discovered on May 12, 1986, by amateur astronomer Donald Machholz on Loma Prieta peak, in central California using 130 millimetres (5.1 in) binoculars. On June 6, 1986, 96P/Machholz passed 0.40373 AU from the Earth. 96P/Machholz last came to perihelion on October 27, 2017, and will next come to perihelion on January 31, 2023. The comet has an estimated diameter of around 6.4 km (4.0 mi).

45P/Honda–Mrkos–Pajdušáková Periodic comet with 5 year orbit

45P/Honda–Mrkos–Pajdušáková is a short-period comet discovered by Minoru Honda December 3, 1948. It is named after Minoru Honda, Antonín Mrkos, and Ľudmila Pajdušáková. The object revolves around the Sun on an elliptical orbit with a period of 5.25 years. The nucleus is 1.3 kilometers in diameter. On August 19 and 20, 2011, it became the fifteenth comet detected by ground radar telescope.

Comet 322P/SOHO, also designated P/1999 R1, P/2003 R5, P/2007 R5, and P/2011 R4, is the first periodic comet to be discovered using the automated telescopes of the SOHO spacecraft, and second to be given a numbered designation, after 321P/SOHO. JPL Horizons next predicts 322P to come to perihelion at 2019-Aug-31 12:25 UT.

103P/Hartley Periodic comet with 6 year orbit

Comet Hartley 2, designated as 103P/Hartley by the Minor Planet Center, is a small periodic comet with an orbital period of 6.46 years. It was discovered by Malcolm Hartley in 1986 at the Schmidt Telescope Unit, Siding Spring Observatory, Australia. Its diameter is estimated to be 1.2 to 1.6 kilometres.

Great Southern Comet of 1887

The Great Southern Comet of 1887, or C/1887 B1 using its International Astronomical Union (IAU) designation, was a bright comet seen from the Southern Hemisphere during January 1887. Later calculations indicated it to be part of the Kreutz Sungrazing group.

C/2010 X1 (Elenin) Oort cloud comet

Comet C/2010 X1 (Elenin) is an Oort cloud comet discovered by Russian amateur astronomer Leonid Elenin on December 10, 2010, through remote control of the International Scientific Optical Network's robotic observatory near Mayhill in the U.S. state of New Mexico. The discovery was made using the automated asteroids discovery program CoLiTec. At the time of discovery, the comet had an apparent magnitude of 19.5, making it about 150,000 times fainter than can be seen with the naked eye. The discoverer, Leonid Elenin, originally estimated that the comet nucleus was 3–4 km in diameter, but more recent estimates place the pre-breakup size of the comet at 2 km. Comet Elenin started disintegrating in August 2011, and as of mid-October 2011 was not visible even using large ground-based telescopes.

C/2011 L4 (PanSTARRS)

C/2011 L4 (PanSTARRS), also known as Comet PANSTARRS, is a non-periodic comet discovered in June 2011 that became visible to the naked eye when it was near perihelion in March 2013. It was discovered using the Pan-STARRS telescope located near the summit of Haleakalā, on the island of Maui in Hawaii. Comet C/2011 L4 probably took millions of years to come from the Oort cloud. After leaving the planetary region of the Solar System, the post-perihelion orbital period is estimated to be roughly 107000 years. Dust and gas production suggests the comet nucleus is roughly 1 kilometer (0.62 mi) in diameter.

Comet ISON Oort cloud comet

Comet ISON, formally known as C/2012 S1, was a sungrazing comet from the Oort cloud discovered on 21 September 2012 by Vitaly Nevsky and Artyom Novichonok.

C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) Oort cloud comet

C/2013 A1 is an Oort cloud comet discovered on 3 January 2013 by Robert H. McNaught at Siding Spring Observatory using the 0.5-meter (20 in) Uppsala Southern Schmidt Telescope.

Comet C/2012 E2 (SWAN) was a Kreutz group sungrazing comet discovered by Vladimir Bezugly in publicly available images taken by the SWAN instrument on board the SOHO spacecraft. It is recognized for being the first Kreutz sungrazer observed in SWAN imagery.

C/2013 V5 (Oukaimeden) is a retrograde Oort cloud comet discovered on 12 November 2013 by Oukaimeden Observatory at an apparent magnitude of 19.4 using a 0.5-meter (20 in) reflecting telescope.

C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) Disintegrating Comet as of April 2020.

C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) is a comet with a near-parabolic orbit discovered by the ATLAS survey on December 28, 2019. It is currently in the constellation Monoceros. Early predictions based on the brightening rate suggested that the comet could become as bright as magnitude 0 matching the brightness of Vega. It received widespread media coverage due to its dramatic increase in brightness and orbit similar to the Great Comet of 1844, but on March 22, 2020, the comet started disintegrating. Such fragmentation events are very common for Kreutz Sungrazers. The comet continues to fade and did not reach naked eye visibility. By mid-May, comet ATLAS appeared very diffuse even in a telescope. C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) has not been seen since May 21, 2020.


  1. 1 2 3 Horizons output. "Barycentric Osculating Orbital Elements for Comet C/2011 W3 (Lovejoy)" . Retrieved 7 August 2012. Solution uses the Solar System barycenter and barycentric coordinates (select Ephemeris Type:Elements and Center:@0). Saved Horizons output file generated 7 August 2012.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Battams, Karl (2 December 2011). "The Great "Birthday Comet" of 2011, Chapter 1: Inbound". Sungrazing Comets. Navy.mil. Retrieved 28 December 2011.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Hoffman, Tony (27 December 2011). "Comet Lovejoy's Surprising Path to Greatness". PC Magazine . Retrieved 28 December 2011.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Kronk, Gary W. "C/2011 W3 (Lovejoy)". Cometography.com. Archived from the original on 7 January 2012. Retrieved 28 December 2011.
  5. Beatty, Kelly (6 December 2011). "Comet Lovejoy's Date With Destiny". Sky & Telescope . Archived from the original on 8 December 2012. Retrieved 28 December 2011.
  6. Bauer, Markus (14 December 2011). "The beginning of the end for comet Lovejoy". ESA.int. Retrieved 29 December 2011.
  7. Williams, Gareth V (11 December 2011). "MPEC 2011-X36 : COMET C/2011 W3 (LOVEJOY)". Minor Planet Center. Retrieved 29 December 2011.
  8. 1 2 3 4 Battams, Karl (15 December 2011). "The Great "Birthday Comet" of 2011, Chapter 2: Survival". Sungrazing Comets. Navy.mil. Retrieved 28 December 2011.
  9. "The Great "Birthday Comet" of 2011". SOHO. NASA.gov. 15 December 2011. Retrieved 28 December 2011.
  10. Battams, Karl (December 2011). "SOHO-LASCO Comet Reports for 201112". Sungrazing Comets. Navy.mil. Retrieved 28 December 2011.
  11. 1 2 O'Neill, Ian (15 December 2011). "Comet Lovejoy to 'Play Chicken' With the Sun". Discovery.com. Retrieved 28 December 2011.
  12. Phillips, Tony (15 December 2011). "What's Up in Space". Spaceweather.com. Retrieved 28 December 2011.
  13. "Brightest comets seen since 1935". International Comet Quarterly. 12 February 2009. Archived from the original on 28 December 2011. Retrieved 28 December 2011.
  14. "C/2011 W3 (Lovejoy)". JPL Small-Body Database Browser. NASA.gov. 4 June 2012. Archived from the original on 5 August 2012.
  15. Malik, Tariq (16 December 2011). "Sun Rips Tail From Comet During Solar Close Encounter". Space.com. Retrieved 28 December 2011.
  16. Battams, Karl (25 February 2013). "Did you know". Twitter.com. Retrieved 25 June 2013.
  17. Wall, Mike (15 December 2011). "Satellites to Watch Comet's Death Plunge Through Sun Today". Space.com. Retrieved 28 December 2011.
  18. Wall, Mike (15 December 2011). "Comet Lovejoy Survives Fiery Plunge Through Sun, NASA Says". Space.com. Retrieved 28 December 2011.
  19. 1 2 3 Phillips, Tony (16 December 2011). "Comet Lovejoy Plunges into the Sun and Survives". Science News. NASA.gov. Retrieved 28 December 2011.
  20. Phillips, Tony (12 January 2012). "Some Comets like it Hot". Science News. NASA.gov. Retrieved 14 January 2012.
  21. Černý, Jakub (19 December 2011). "První snímky komety Lovejoy ze Země" [First images of Comet Lovejoy from the Earth]. Kommet.cz (in Czech). Archived from the original on 9 January 2012. Retrieved 8 January 2012.
  22. Cain, Fraser (21 December 2011). "Timelapse of Comet Lovejoy Rising by Colin Legg". Universetoday.com. Retrieved 28 December 2011.
  23. 1 2 Beatty, Kelly (22 December 2011). "Comet Lovejoy Keeps on Giving". Sky & Telescope . Archived from the original on 2 February 2013. Retrieved 28 December 2011.
  24. Kauderer, Amiko (23 December 2011). "International Space Station Imagery: ISS030-E-015479". NASA.gov. Archived from the original on 9 January 2012. Retrieved 28 December 2011.
  25. 1 2 Sekanina, Zdeněk; Chodas, Paul W (October 2012). "Comet C/2011 W3 (Lovejoy): Orbit Determination, Outbursts, Disintegration of Nucleus, Dust-Tail Morphology, and Relationship to New Cluster of Bright Sungrazers". The Astrophysical Journal . 757 (2): 127. arXiv: 1205.5839 . Bibcode:2012ApJ...757..127S. doi:10.1088/0004-637X/757/2/127. S2CID   118586921.

Further reading