NASA has released images of a recent sungrazing comet that did not manage to survive its latest trip near our Sun. The comet quickly melted and its structure was torn apart, while the remaining parts were vaporized by the intense forces near the sun.
The comet’s approach and eventual demise was captured by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, more commonly known as SOHO, constructed by NASA in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA).
The observatory saw a bright comet in the first 5-6 hours of August 4, traveling towards the Sun at a speed of almost 1.3 million miles per hour. The released image can be a bit misleading for those who are not familiar with a comet’s trajectory. This particular comet didn’t fall directly into the sun but only passed around it too close to survive. The white circle in the image represents the disk of the sun.
Comets like this particular one that pass within 850, 000 miles of the sun’s surface are called sungrazing comets. If the size of the comet is relatively small, then it can be shattered or vaporized by the heat and the other forces the Sun produces. Bigger comets with more ice and a stronger structure have been seen to survive the grazing of the sun. The size of a sungrazing comet can vary between 30 to 150 feet in diameter.
Sungrazers can help scientists learn about the Sun because their tails of ionized gas illuminate the magnetic fields around the sun. As such, they can act as tracers which help scientists observe the invisible fields.
The comet in question was first observed by Soho starting with August 1, and it is part of a family of comets that follow the same path as the Kreutz comet which broke apart thousands of years ago.
During the two decades since its launch in orbit, Soho has dramatically extended the understanding of the stun by opening a new era in solar observations. Though, its creators did not expect Soho to be able to observe so many comets. According to Joe Gurman, mission scientist for the observatory:
“So we expected it might from time to time see a bright comet near the sun. But nobody dreamed we’d approach 200 a year.”
Its success is partially attributed to amateur astronomers who are willing to sift through the vast amounts of data the observatory collects, and it’s published online in almost real-time.
What do you think about this sungrazing comet?
Image credit: Soho