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Comet Lovejoy survives brush with fiery solar death

Space rock improbably flies through the heat of the Sun

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Suicidal comet Lovejoy has survived its brush with death in the furnace of the Sun, emerging from behind the star in one (smaller) piece.

Most space boffins thought that the comet, composed of ice and rocks, couldn't survive its trajectory so close to the heat of the Sun - and expected Lovejoy to disintegrate. But instead, NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory filmed the comet coming out on the other side.

"It's absolutely astounding," said Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab in Washington DC. "I did not think the comet's icy core was big enough to survive plunging through the several million degree solar corona for close to an hour, but Comet Lovejoy is still with us."

In the SDO's videos, the comet's tail is seen wriggling wildly as it passes just 120,000km above the Sun's fiery surface.

According to the space agency, this could be a sign that Lovejoy was buffeted by plasma waves or that the tail was bouncing off great magnetic loops known to be present in the Sun's atmosphere.

"This is all new," Battams said. "SDO is giving us our first look at comets traveling through the Sun's atmosphere. How the two interact is cutting-edge research."

The only explanation the eggheads have for the comet's survival is that its core must be at least 500m in diameter - large enough for at least some of it to survive its solar bake.

However, the comet could still break up.

"It's been through a tremendously traumatic event; structurally, it could be extremely weak," said Battams. "On the other hand, it could hold itself together and disappear back into the recesses of the solar system." ®

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