Comet caught in act of diving into sun

We know that sun-grazing comets commonly sweep near our sun.  Now astronomers have caught a comet on video at the moment it plunges into the sun and apparently disintegrates in the sun’s 100,000 degree (Kelvin) heat.

Astronomers made the announcement at the May 2010 meeting of the American Astronomical Society, happening now in Miami, Florida.  You can see a large-format video here (might take a minute or two to load). Or look below for a small version of the video.

(NASA. UC Berkeley)

This video was captured by four post-doctoral fellows – solar physicists at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory – using instruments aboard NASA’s twin STEREO spacecraft, They tracked the comet as it approached the sun and estimated an approximate time and place of impact.

STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory), launched in 2006, consists of identical spacecraft orbiting the sun, one ahead of Earth and one behind the Earth, providing a stereo view of the sun.

The image at the top of this article, meanwhile, is a hydrogen-alpha observation of the sun’s edge from the Coronado instrument of the Mauna Loa Solar Observatory showing what the authors believe to be the comet approaching the solar limb.

The sun’s brightness generally prevents these so-called sun-grazing comets – which are icy, dusty rocky balls traveling in our solar system – from being seen close to the sun. This comet apparently survived the heat of the sun’s corona and disappeared in its chromosphere.

Claire Raftery, Juan Carlos Martinez-Oliveros, Samuel Krucker and Pascal Saint-Hilaire tracked the comet, concluding it was probably one of the Kreutz family of comets, a swarm of Trojan or Greek comets ejected from their orbit in 2004 by Jupiter, and making its first and only loop near the sun.

The team presented its data and images on Monday, May 24, at the Miami, Fla., meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Read the full press release.

And imagine the forces involved – the flight through space of this comet, from Jupiter’s vicinity to the inner solar system – the heat and blast from our parent star as the comet disintegrates on its final plunge toward the sun!

May 25, 2010

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