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Just lovely! Comet shot at sunrise

Colin Legg

Australian photographer Colin Legg captured this photograph of Comet Lovejoy's tail flaring up from the horizon just before sunrise Wednesday.

We already know that Comet Lovejoy is a survivor, thanks to its death-defying spin around the sun last week, but now we're finding out it's a show-off as well. Here's a glorious picture of the comet's double tail, captured just before sunrise in Western Australia.

The picture is part of a must-see video sequence created by Colin Legg, who set up his camera looking southeast across the Mandurah Estuary, roughly 38 miles (60 kilometers) south of Perth. Legg has a knack for doing time-lapse photography of the night sky.

In a rushed email, Legg told me he made a last-minute decision to try taking pictures of the comet, based on reports that the tail was visible to the naked eye during morning twilight.


"Drove from Perth to Mandurah, slept in vehicle until 2:30 a.m., then set up two cameras, one for time-lapse, one for still images," he wrote. "Kept shooting till sunrise, then drove back to Perth. Hoping to do the same thing again tonight. First opportunity in almost six years to image and view a bright comet. Only visible in Southern Hemisphere while still bright. Last good comet in south was Comet McNaught. I was still shooting film back then."

The picture shows two tails: The fainter tail consists of ionized gas that is pushed almost directly away from the sun by the solar wind, while the brighter tail is made up of heavier material that more closely follows the comet's orbit. Check out this clickable Flash graphic to learn more about the anatomy of a comet.

Although the comet was shot at sunrise today, Lovejoy isn't finished just yet: "The visibility of both tails could improve in the days ahead as the comet moves away from the sun and the background sky darkens accordingly," SpaceWeather.com's Tony Phillips writes. "Early-rising sky watchers should be alert for this rare apparition."

Check out SpaceWeather.com for more of that lovely Lovejoy imagery — but first, take a look at Legg's Vimeo video, which brings the nearly full moon into the picture. Go full-screen HD for the best view:

Cometary hits and misses:


Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.