Its doom was sealed six years ago.
In 2004, UC Berkeley researchers say, this comet was tugged by Jupiter’s gravity into a path bound for destruction in the cauldron of the sun. And when its end finally came this March, astronomers captured the comet plunging deep into the sun on video (see below), watching it go farther into the light than any suicide comet seen before.
Seeing comets and other small objects approach the sun is difficult because the objects are overwhelmed by the sun’s brightness. Scientists were able to track this one closer to the sun than ever, before it it burned up in the sun’s lower atmosphere [Wired.com].
The team watched the comet with NASA’s STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory), launched in 2006 and using satellites on opposites sides of the planet to survey the sun in 3D. The comet plunged through the corona and was tough enough to survive until it crossed into the chromosphere and met its final end.
Based on the comet’s relatively short tail, about 1.9 million miles long, the researchers believe that the comet contained heavier elements that do not evaporate readily. This would also explain how it penetrated so deeply into the chromosphere, surviving the strong solar wind as well as the extreme temperatures, before evaporating [Daily Mail].
The astronomers think this now-deceased comet was a Kreutz sungrazer. This is a group of comets that are the remnants of a single large comet that broke up, and periodically they graze too close for comfort and make death dives into the sun. The teams presented the findings yesterday at the American Astronomical Meeting in Miami.
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