Comets sure are dramatic sometimes — last week, one dove right into the sun! Scientists from NASA and the ESA observed the comet via the cooperative Solar & Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), which was launched in 1995 to study the Sun’s internal structure, atmosphere, solar winds, and ionized gases. The comet was relatively tiny — a few tens of meters across, according to a U.S. Naval Research Lab scientist. And while that may seem big to us, it wasn’t anywhere near big enough to survive the solar radiation.
The video below shows the dramatic nosedive. It takes close to 40 seconds for the comet to appear at the bottom right of the screen, where it quickly heads into the sun with a dramatic finish.
According to Spaceweather, the comet was “a member of the Kreutz family.” Heh, I love that. Where’s the rest of the obituary? The comet is survived by its brothers, sisters, and cousins (the Kreutz family loves to reproduce, apparently), all of whom hail from a giant comet that broke apart hundreds of years ago. German astronomer Heinrich Kreutz is their namesake, as he specialized in studying these comets.
As far as we know, comets don’t seem to cause solar flares or explosions — scientists believe comets are too small to disrupt the solar field. Kreutz comets disintegrate during their sundives on a daily basis, and this one garnered attention because it was bigger and more visible than most.
Coincidentally, or maybe to make the comet’s maker-meeting moment all the more grand, the sun spewed forth a coronal mass ejection (CME) — a burst of solar wind that releases into space — just as the comet broke apart. Aw, that was a nice gesture!
The August 20 CME was pointed toward Earth, which means that billions of solar particles were sent hurtling toward us at roughly 570 miles per second. By now they’ve reached us — it only takes a few days — and while they’re capable of disrupting satellite and ground-based electronic systems, I haven’t been able to dig up any reports that this particular CME did that. Such CMEs can also cause a “supercharging” of the Northern Lights, as extra energy enters and then stays in the magnetosphere.
If you like comet drama, you’re in luck — the comet ISON, currently near Mars, will pass Earth and head toward the Sun in November. Scientists believe it will be one of the brightest comets visible to us Earthlings, perhaps even visible to the naked eye. Keep your heads up for this one!