This image shows Comet C/2011 N3 approaching the sun during a July 4, 2011 death dive. A view from the SOHO spacecraft appears in the lower left with the region of the sun shown elsewhere identified. The main image is a composite view of the sun from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory that shows gas spewing from the comet at temperatures of 1 million Kelvin as it descends into the solar corona to the point of destruction. Insets show the contrast-enhanced emission from the comet’s tail six times during the last ten minutes of the comet’s existence. CREDIT: Science/AAAS
A comet has been spotted disintegrating in the atmosphere of the sun for the first time. Such sun-diving comets are common but none have been seen surviving entry into the sun’s atmosphere until now. They could help reveal what comets are made of and also uncover hidden properties of the sun’s atmosphere, researchers said today (Jan. 19) as they announced the discovery.
A group of comets known as the Kreutz family regularly flies perilously close to the sun.
In the past 15 years, more than 1,400 of these dirty snowballs have been detected, likely originating from a giant parent comet 20 to 100 kilometers wide (12 to 62 miles) that broke apart as recently as 2,500 years ago. However, until now, none of the telescopes trained on the sun was sensitive enough to follow any of these comets to their demise in the sun’s atmosphere.