For the first time, a death-diving comet has been observed as it vaporized in the sun’s atmosphere, thanks to new data from a NASA satellite.
More than a thousand known comets are so-called Kreutz sungrazers, a family of icy bodies that pass very near to the sun’s surface on their orbits through the solar system.
Using NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), astronomers are able to spot many of these sungrazers as they get close to our star.
That’s because SOHO carries a key instrument that has an occulting disk, a circle that blocks out the glare of the sun’s main body so scientists can study the star’s faint upper atmosphere, or corona.
So far, most of SOHO’s documented sungrazer deaths involved comets breaking up at a distance or simply vanishing behind the occulting disk.
“Some of them made it behind the disk, and none of them came out on the other side,” said solar physicist Karel Schrijver, a fellow at the Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, California.