NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center just released this video of what happened on July 5, 2011, when a comet swung in toward our sun and appeared to strike it.
See the comet come in from below, and see the “splash” on the right side of the screen? You can’t actually see the comet hit the sun because the impact is blocked out by the red occulting disk that lets us see the other structures in the sun’s corona, or outer atmosphere. But you can get a mighty good sense of the “splash” that took place in the sun’s atmosphere, as the comet zoomed in closest. By the way, the sun’s position in this video is indicated by the white circle in the video.
Astronomers refer to comets that strike the sun as “sungrazers.” It’s thought they come so close to our star that they evaporate and disappear. However, no one has actually seen the end of that journey, before now.
This image was obtained by NASA’s SDO (Solar Dynamics Observatory), which captured a 20-minute movie of the comet streaking directly in front of the sun.
NASA says scientists love this movie since it’s a “first,” and they also believe additional analysis of the data might hold more clues about the fate of the comet. Most likely, given the intense heat and radiation, the comet simply evaporated away completely.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.