Scientists watch comet plunge into the sun

Jan 19, 2012
Originally published on January 19, 2012 4:03 pm

For the first time ever, scientists have been able to watch a comet perform a deadly dive into the sun. Back in July, a Kreutz sungrazer known as C/2011 N3 passed so close to the sun that the icy body was vaporized.

Scientists at the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory, who made the observations using NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, describe the comet's final death throes in a paper to be published in tomorrow's edition of the journal Science.

Here's the comets trajectory is described described by Lockheed's press release:

"As the comet streaked into the solar atmosphere it had already fractured into many large pieces ranging in size from 30 to 150 feet. The pieces were embedded in the nebulous envelope made up of ice, dust, and gas called the coma, surrounding the comet's nucleus. The coma was estimated to be about 800 miles across, followed by a glowing tail approximately 10,000 miles long. The tail was seen pulsing from dim to bright to dim again during the journey across the Sun, which suggests that there was further breakup of the individual chunks of comet as it continued to fragment in the intense glow from the Sun's surface. Eventually, the comet evaporated completely.

"'I think the light pulses in the tail were one of the most interesting things we witnessed,' said [Dr. Karel Schrijver, one of the paper's lead authors]. 'The comet's tail gets brighter by as much as four times every minute or two. The comet seems first to put a lot of material into that tail, then less, and then the pattern repeats.'"

And as if that description wasn't awesome enough, we think Discover Magazine's Bad Astronomy brings it home:

"For one thing, it was screaming along at about 650 kilometers per second (400 miles/second) as it flamed out. To give you an idea of how flippin' fast that is, it would've crossed the entire United States in about eight seconds.

"Yeah, I know.

"It also passed an incredible 100,000 km (62,000 miles) above the Sun's surface. Have you ever stood outside on a hot day, and thought the Sun would cook you? Now imagine the Sun filling half the sky. That's what that comet saw. No wonder it disintegrated."

Want to watch it happen? Here's a video of it from NASA:

But beyond how cool this is, National Geographic reports that by studying this crash, astronomers might learn something about solar wind and the sun's magnetic field.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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