In the early hours of December 22, Gabriel Brammer, a support astronomer at the Paranal Observatory in northern Chile, became the toast of the scientific community as he captured stunning time-lapse footage of Comet Lovejoy searing a path through the atmosphere in Chile’s Atacama region.
Against the crisp desert sky – renowned as one of the best places in the world to observe celestial occurrences – the footage was made all the more breath-taking by a red laser beam that astronomers at the observatory fired off to measure the comet’s path and correct for atmospheric distortions.
“On the last morning of my shift I tried to try catch it on camera before sunrise,” Brammer said. “The tail of the comet was easily visible with the naked eye, and the combination of the crescent moon, comet, Milky Way and the laser guide star was nearly as impressive to the naked eye as it appears in the long-exposure photos.”
Adding to the buzz it caused in the scientific community was the fact that that it had just been discovered and, secondly, it was supposed to have been vaporized the week before.
The comet was discovered by an amateur astronomer from Australia, Terry Lovejoy, on November 27 this year, but entered the Sun’s corona just last week, an encounter from which it was not expected to survive.
That it did, surprised even Nasa’s space crews. In a broadcast from the International Space Station, Commander Dan Burbank said that at first, he had “no idea what” he was seeing.
“I would say that two nights ago I probably saw the most amazing thing I have ever seen in space, and that’s saying an awful lot because everyday is filled with amazing things,” said Commander Burbank, who described the comet as “a long green glowing arc.”
The bad news for those who missed the spectacular display is that Comet Lovejoy will now re-enter its precarious orbit of the sun and, if it survives, it is not expected to be visible again for another 314 years. The good news is that Commander Burbank also managed to capture incredible footage of the event, from his vantage point some 239 miles (386 km) above earth.
Photo credit: European Southern Observatory/Flickr.