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Mystery of Comet Lovejoy: How'd it survive close encounter with the sun?

Comet Lovejoy defied expectations and survived its closest approach to the sun late Thursday, leaving scientists the rare opportunity to chronicle a comet's near-death experience.

Image

This image provided by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, taken Thursday shows the Comet Lovejoy leaving the sun's corona which is several million degrees. A small comet survived what astronomers figured would be a sure death when it danced uncomfortably close to the broiling sun Thursday night.

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory/AP

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Comet Lovejoy lives to orbit another 314 years.

Icarus should have been so lucky.

The comet, discovered by Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy Nov. 27, defied expectations that it would be destroyed during its closest approach to the sun late Thursday.

Instead, NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite saw the comet emerge from behind the sun between 7 and 8 p.m. Eastern time Thursday, surviving a passage through the sun's corona and its searing 2-million-degree temperatures.

Prior to the comet's swing-by, which took it to within about 87,000 miles of the sun's surface, scientists expected the comet, formally designated C/2011 W3, to vaporize.

In anticipation, five sun-watching spacecraft from the US, Europe, and Japan trained their instruments on the object to take advantage of the rare opportunity to chronicle a comet's final encounter with the sun.

"I suppose the first thing to say is this: I was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong," wrote astronomer Karl Battams, with the US Naval Observatory, who has been blogging about what he calculated as Comet Lovejoy's impending demise. "And I have never been so happy to be wrong!"

Why? Because, he says, that's when scientists really learn something.

One question relates to the comet's size.

"This is one case where size counts," says Dean Pesnell, project scientist for the Solar Dynamics Observatory at the Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "The bigger you are, the more likely you can make it through the closest approach to the sun," or perihelion.

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