NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) captured on camera in early July what scientists are hailing as the first-ever imagery of a comet plunging into the sun.
The comet met its fiery demise July 6 when it zoomed in from behind the sun and melted into oblivion as it crashed into the star. One of the SDO spacecraft’s high-definition imagers “actually spotted a sun-grazing comet as it disintegrated over about a 15 minute period (July 6, 2011), something never observed before,” SDO officials said.
Built by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., the nearly $800 million satellite was launched atop an Atlas 5 rocket in February 2010 on what is expect to be at least a five year mission.
Comets have been spotted near the sun before, but this object was the first to be observed in real-time as it disappeared.
“Given the intense heat and radiation, the comet simply evaporated away completely,” SDO officials said.
The comet was a type known to astronomers as a sun-grazing comet because its path brought it extremely close to the sun.
The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a joint NASA-European Space Agency spacecraft launched in 1995, also spotted the comet’s demise and recorded a video of the event.
“This is one of the brightest sun-grazers SOHO has recorded, similar to the Christmas comet of 1996,” SOHO project scientist Bernhard Fleck said in a statement.
SOHO officials said that, because of the angle of the comet’s orbit, it passed across the front half of the sun and appeared to brighten as it struck hotter particles above the solar surface.
Sun-grazing comets are relatively common and are also known as Kreutz comets, after the 19th century astronomer Heinrich Kreutz who first showed they were related.
Astronomers suspect that Kreutz comets all began as a single, giant comet that broke apart several centuries ago.