A space telescope has caught a giant comet’s extraordinary final hours as it made a dive of death into the Sun. The cosmic missile, with a head perhaps a few miles across and a tail many millions of miles long appeared in pictures being taken by a satellite yesterday.
The European Space Agency’s orbiting SoHo observatory, launched and operated by NASA, continually monitors the Sun. It recorded the rare brilliant comet swooping in from the lower left of its pictures.
Click on this link at SpaceWeather.com to see an animation of the comet’s journey into the Sun, which is masked in the pictures to protect the camera’s detectors from being fried.
It grew ever brighter as it aimed directly at our home star, shown as a white ring in the images. It was immediately vaporised by the Sun’s powerful nuclear furnace.
Experts believe the huge comet was just a fragment of a vast supercomet that broke up at least 2,000 years ago. The resulting debris, now orbiting in the solar system as smaller comets, is called the Kreutz family after a 19th century German astronomer who studied them. Astronomers say that many much smaller Kreutz fragments, too small to be seen, graze past the Sun every day and disintegrate.
This week NASA revealed that their new Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer space telescope – WISE – could detect a dim brown dwarf companion star to the sun that may be sending comets towards us from a vast reservoir of the icy objects called the Oort Cloud at the edge of the solar system.
Robin Scagell, vice-president of the UK’s Society for Popular Astronomy, told Skymania News: “A comet like this will be like no more than an annoying fleabite for the Sun. But if it something of a similar size hit the Earth it could blast a crater the size of a city and cause widespread devastation. So it is rather alarming that they just arrive out of nowhere and are so unpredictable!”
Note added March 18: The SoHo team have created a special webpage about the suicide comet fragments here.
Photo: An image from SoHo shows the comet on its path into the Sun. See the animation at SpaceWeather.com. (Credit: NASA).
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