Sun storm rips off comet’s tail

Astronomers have watched astonished as a massive solar storm ripped the tail off a passing comet. The cosmic hurricane burst from the Sun and slammed into the comet, sending its gas tail, more than a million miles long, flying towards the depths of the solar system.

It is the first time that such a dramatic display of space weather has been witnessed by astronomers. The violent solar eruption, called a coronal mass ejection, hurled a vast cloud of magnetised gas into space.

A Nasa observatory, called Stereo-A, recorded the dramatic wave of energy in a video as it watched the Sun from its own orbit. It used a camera, called the Heliospheric Imager, that was built in the United Kingdom by scientists at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, near Oxford, and the University of Birmingham.

You can see the moment that the tail was swept away for yourselves by viewing a spectacular video of the event on Nasa’s own website.

The comet, called Encke, is famous as it has the fastest orbit of any known, spinning around the Sun in less than three and a half years. such objects are thought to be icy debris left over from the formation of the solar system. Nasa missions are due to find out more about them. Some believe that life on Earth came from comets.

Encke was relatively close to the Sun, inside the orbit of Mercury, when it took its solar battering. The event happened on April 20, but details are only just being released and will appear in the Astrophysical Journal Letters next week.

Angelos Vourlidas, lead author and researcher at the Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, said: “We were awestruck when we saw these images.

“This is the first time we’ve witnessed a collision between a coronal mass ejection and a comet and the surprise of seeing the disconnection of the tail was the icing on the cake.”

Professor Richard Harrison of the UK’s Rutherford Appleton Lab, said: “This was a spectacular result – snapping the exact moment the violent Sun broke the tail from Comet Encke. People think of space as empty or quiet, I think we have clearly demonstrated what a dynamic and dangerous place it can be!”

Encke did not stay tail-less for very long. A new one grew instantly as the Sun’s warmth caused plumes of gas to erupt and stream away from the comet’s icy head.

Stereo’s twin observatory, Stereo-B, sent home its own remarkable movie earlier this year of an eclipse of the Sun as never seen before.

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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