Bright comet plunges to destruction by the Sun

Space telescopes have watched as one of the brightest comets seen in years plunged to its doom into the Sun. The giant chunk of rock and ice grew a tail millions of miles long as it flared brilliantly during its final hours.

A spectacular view from Soho of the comet, lower right, as it approaches the Sun, which is masked out to protect the LASCO C2 camera. Image credit: ESA/NASA

NASA’s Sun-monitoring space observatories Soho and STEREO A recorded the comet’s dying moments in photos that filtered out the Sun’s own brilliant glare. But it was too close to the Sun to be seen from Earth in a daylight sky.

The comet was thought to be one of the larger pieces produced by the break-up of a monster comet many centuries ago. Smaller fragments are often observed passing close to the Sun and are known as Kreutz sungrazers. They are named after Heinrich Kreutz, a German astronomer who studied them in detail in the 19th century.

Comet expert Karl Battams, of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC, tweeted: “This is one of the brightest Kreutz sungrazers we’ve seen over the past 21 years. Awesome!” He added that if there had been a total solar eclipse happening anywhere in the world, the comet would have been easily visible.

But the comet will have had as much impact as a fleabite on the Sun itself, becoming completely vaporised as it fell into our home star.

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The comet observed with Soho’s wider-angle LASCO C3 camera, again with the Sun masked out. Image credit: ESA/NASA