Comet Lovejoy will be passing close to the Sun in the next couple of days. SDO will be taking special observations of the comet beginning 22:59 UT on 2011/12/15 (5.59pm 2011/12/15, Eastern Time), and lasting for a couple of hours. The comet will pass behind the solar limb at around 00:07 UT 2011/12/16 (7:07pm 2011/12/15, Eastern Time). There is a chance the comet will survive its encounter with the Sun.
SDO/AIA will take special observations to view the comet; AIA will change its pointing and point slightly away from the center of the Sun in order to try to get more observations of the comet as it gets close to the disk of the Sun.
Why are these observations being taken? Well, we are looking for something like we saw on 2011/07/05 this year. On that day a comet fell in to the Sun. These kinds of comets have been seen before in LASCO-C3 and LASCO-C2 images. What was new about this observation was that for the first time the comet was seen against the disk of the Sun. The video below gives a description of what was seen.
SDO/AIA detects different wavelengths of light. So in order for us to see it, the comet must have been emitting at those different wavelengths, and the comet must have disintegrated in to a big enough cloud of ionized gas for us to see it. So the big scientific question about seeing this comet against the disk of the Sun is explaining both how it came to be emitting at wavelengths that SDO/AIA could see, and figuring out how it could have disintegrated. This is an active area of research, with presentations on this subject given last week at the American Geophysical Union‘s Fall Meeting, and a paper set to appear in Science.
We hope you enjoy tracking Comet Lovejoy as it gets closer to the Sun. Please let us know if you have any further questions about the Helioviewer Project and Comet Lovejoy.