Comet sighting wows astronaut aboard the station

The commander of the International Space Station, peering out the multi-windowed Cupola observatory, has captured what's sure to be some of the most iconic images ever taken aboard the outpost.

The shots were snapped Wednesday, a night after NASA astronaut Dan Burbank serendipitously witnessed comet Lovejoy rising from behind the Earth as the station orbited 250 miles above the planet.

Spaceflight Now+Plus subscribers can download and save the stunning high-definition television video of the comet encounter.

"Two nights ago I probably saw the most amazing thing I've ever seen in space and that's saying an awful lot because every day is filled with amazing things. We were flying over Tasmania, we'd just seen the storms in the South Pacific over the Philippines, it was nighttime, thunderstorms lighting up the entire sky. Then just before the sun came up, the Earth's limb was lit up as a thin sliver of blue and purple and then there was this long, green arc that extended probably 10 degrees or so from the horizon," Burbank said Thursday in a live space-to-ground interview with a Detroit television station.

The comet rose higher and higher as the station orbited before Burbank eventually lost sight of it behind the Japanese laboratory module from his vantage point inside the bay window Cupola.

Lovejoy stretched 20-moon diamaters in length, Burbank said, "if you think in those terms, and I had no idea what it was. It was a long, green, glowing arc. Turns out it ended up being a comet that someone in Tasmania had seen about the same time -- comet Lovejoy -- that had passed about 140,000 kilometers from the surface of the sun."

That close encounter with our star last Friday was expected to be the end of the comet. Astronomers fully expected the comet would not survive its trek through the hot atmosphere of the sun, burning up and never being seen again.

"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."

"It's probably the most spectacular thing you could imagine, and from the vantage point of space it's different than seeing it from planet Earth because there's no intervening atmosphere to see (through)," Burbank said.

The comet was discovered on Dec. 2 by amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy of Australia. Researchers quickly surmised it belonged to the Kreutz family of sungrazing comets, which are fragments of a single giant comet that broke apart back in the 12th century.

Scientists say the joint NASA-European Space Agency Solar and Heliospheric Observatory spacecraft sees one falling into the sun every few days.

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Photo credit: NASA

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