Comet lights up sky

THOSE who stayed up late to watch for Santa on Saturday night were in for a treat as a new 'Christmas star' lit up the skies above the Riverina about 4am.

Wagga's two wise men, directors of the Wagga Observatory Dr Graeme White and Michael Maher, watched on from a location overlooking Borambola, south of Wagga, as Comet Lovejoy illuminated the morning twilight, much like the Christmas star observed at the birth of Christ.

Comet Lovejoy, a sungrazer that was discovered by Terry Lovejoy on Sunday, November 27, has made the trip around the sun and is now visible in the morning twilight, before it fades away in the sunlight.

"Terry Lovejoys's comet is the first sungrazer to be discovered from ground- based observations since the one that I discovered some 40 years ago," Dr White said.

"My comet, Comet White-Ortiz-Bolelli, held the record as the 'last of the great sungrazers' but it now looks as if I have lost that record."

Much like the Christmas story, Dr White said Comet Lovejoy's origin transcends modern history.

Astronomers believe Comet Lovejoy to be a small piece of a much greater comet that broke into pieces in 371 AD.

"The shattered commentary pieces are called the Kreutz Group and have been responsible for at least ten Great Comets seen between 1106 and 1970, as well as hundreds of small comets that have fallen into the sun in recent decades."

While many sungrazer comets fall into the face of the sun and are never seen again, Dr White said Comet Lovejoy was a mere 87,000 kilometres from the same fate.

Michael Maher said the comets presence in the night sky was spectacular.

"It looks like someone had shone a spotlight into the sky," "he said.

"Anyone can see it with their naked eye."

"Lovejoy's discovery is a great achievement for Australian astronomers and Comet Lovejoy is well worth getting up at 4 am to see," Dr White said.

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