Amazing video of comet on a solar death dive

By Phil Plait | June 13, 2011 6:30 am

Last month, on May 10/11, a bright comet took the Final Plunge, dropping into the Sun. It either broke up and evaporated or actually impacted the Sun, because it wasn’t seen to reappear around the other side. Here’s the video, taken using NASA’s SOHO satellite:

Pretty cool! You can see the Sun erupting with a coronal mass ejection, too. It’s tempting to wonder if the two are related, but in fact the CME let go before the comet had even had a chance to interact with the Sun’s magnetic field (CMEs are essentially magnetic events). I know there are tracts floating around the ‘net about comets causing solar events, but the folks promulgating such ideas never do any actual statistics. They see a comet plunge into the Sun, see a flare or CME, and say they’re related. However, you have to look at how many events happen without comets nearby, and more importantly how many comets hit the Sun and don’t spark an event. Without that, you’re just cherry-picking.

Incidentally, you may have noticed a very short horizontal line going right through the heart of the comet. That’s not real; it’s an artifact of the detector on SOHO. It’s called blooming, and it has nothing to do with Planet X unless you’re willing to turn your back firmly on reality.

Anyway, comets hit the Sun quite often; many have similar orbits and are called Kreutz family comets. It’s funny: many of them get bright enough to technically be seen by the eye, but they’re so close to the Sun they still get washed out.

Actually, now that I think about it, I should mention that SOHO is the greatest comet finder of all time; over 2000 comets have been seen in SOHO images! It seems funny to look to the Sun to find comets, but it’s also amazing to me to think that those 2000 comets have been seen in only 16 years since SOHO’s launch… think about how many comets are out there, in deep space. Millions. Billions. More.

We live in an amazing place, and in an amazing time that we can discover so much about it.

Science! I love this stuff.

Credit: NASA/SOHO

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Debunking, Science
MORE ABOUT: blooming, CME, comets, Planet X, SOHO

Comments (29)

  1. Ian S

    any chance SDO or stereo saw it?

  2. Sion

    Phil, I appreciate this sounds pedantic, but I really do want to know – do comets impact the sun, or do they evaporate before they get there?

  3. What’s also interesting (for the sake of perspective) is that many, many comets expire in the Sun (not to mention quite a few planets in young solar systems). What is RARE is that at this millisecond of deep cosmic time, humans have a spacecraft staring at the Sun for them, and can witness these events.

  4. Tom K.

    I am having a problem with the size of the comet. Comparing it to the Sun as it goes in and then the impact, it must have been HUGE! Cometmaximus! When I first saw it my skeptic mind yelled fake, but I knew, not on this site. Pretty cool.

  5. Ian S

    @ Tom K
    That is not the imapact of the comet. as Phil said “You can see the Sun erupting with a coronal mass ejection, too. It’s tempting to wonder if the two are related, but in fact the CME let go before the comet had even had a chance to interact with the Sun’s magnetic field”

  6. Tavi Greiner

    Did you happen to notice the second, smaller comet to the immediate right? Look closely – it is tiny.

  7. In SOHO images, the little specs all over the screen are particles of solar wind hitting the filter right? Or are they various stars being obscured and revealed by the shifting brightness of the sun?

    You’d really be amazed by how many people take SOHO images and go crazy with wild speculation about UFOs, Planet X, Nibiru, Space Babies, etc to the point of pure insanity… and despite having no idea what they’re actually looking at – hold firmly to their perceived truth. It’s so painfully frustrating to see people working so diligently to be ignorant.

  8. A government cover-up prevented us from seeing the actual impact!

    Really, it’s right there in the center of the image. :)

  9. Theramansi

    Tavi,

    Could that be a fragment of the comet? I also notice a couple of stars moving from left to right in the upper half of the frame.

  10. Mapnut

    Wow, that really looks like, comet hits Sun, Sun goes kablooie. It could be hard to convince a casual observer otherwise.

  11. Another comet crash, this one Shoemaker-Levy 9, fragment R, crashing into Jupiter.

    Phil, I made this with J. Garrett Jernigan, who I believe you know.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YxiIfATabdI

  12. Hockeygoon

    I always thought (had been taught) that the tail of the comet faces the sun, because it is pulled by the sun’s gravity. In this image, the tail is away from the sun (which is what I would expect for an object at such high velocity). Now I’m just confused about it. :P

  13. Commander Worf

    It’s clearly an alien spacecraft.

  14. Dave Regan

    Hockeygoon,

    Look up the wikipedia article on comets. It has a description of the different types of tails.

  15. Regner Trampedach

    Hockeygoon @ 13: Away from the Sun! Both the nucleus, coma and tail of the comet are in free fall towards the Sun so they would all travel with the same velocity and acceleration if the solar gravity was the only force in play. But the Sun is also blasting the poor comet with photons and the solar wind (electron, protons and some of the lighter nuclei) which sweeps gas and dust off the nucleus into a tail pointing away from the Sun. Check wikipedia for details on gas and dust tails.
    Tom K. @ 4: The coma, which together with the tail are the visible parts of the comet, is so much humongouser than the actual solid nucleus of the comet, so there really isn’t a problem with it being (barely) resolved in a SoHO image. The coma is more teneous than the best vacuum we can produce in a lab, so it still has very little mass.
    Cheers, Regner

  16. Hockeygoon:
    A comet’s tail is caused by the material that flies/sublimates off the thing as it approaches the sun. As a result, a comets tail always points away from the sun, more-or-less irrespective of the motion of the nucleus of the comet.

  17. rick

    If I can be sure of anything, it’s that someone will re-appropriate this video as evidence the government is firing missiles into the sun for sinister purposes (maybe to cover up impending solar disaster?)

  18. Monkey

    That.
    Was.
    SO.
    Cool.

    !!!!11!!1!!!!!

  19. Menyambal

    If the white ring does represent the Sun, the comet wouldn’t have had time to reach it before the flare went off, even if it was coming in at a right angle (if it were traveling mostly down from the camera’s POV, it would have taken even longer). It sure wasn’t an impact of that comet that set off that flare.

    But, the comet might have done it, anyhow. I think that a nice long comet tail full of ionized gasses could present a short-circuit of the sun’s electromagnetic fields, and possibly trigger a flare that was already building up (it doesn’t have to be much of an effect to touch it off, maybe). I do know that a rocket launch here in Earth’s atmo can provide a path for a lightning strike.

  20. Regner Trampedach

    Menyambal @ 21: Electro-magnetic fields are light! But electric fields and magnetic fields can also exist separately and on their own. As you very correctly point out, the comet tail is a plasma (an ionized and therefore highly conducting gas) and would short-circuit any electric fields present – but the Sun itself, including its wind, is a plasma, so the complete short-circuiting everywhere means you don’t have any electric fields. But you do have magnetic fields, as is rather obvious from the movie posted by the BA (and other pictures/movies of the high-temperature Sun).
    Whether an incoming comet can affect field-lines around an active region (sunspot group, building up to some activity) is probably not a settled question. It looks like the reconnection events in one flare can reconnect to another active region on the verge of flaring and destabilize it resulting in a sympathetic flare. Maybe comets has it in them too…
    The Sun is an amazing place – and it is real! :-)
    Cheers, Regner

  21. Pete Jackson

    @2 Sion. The Sun doesn’t have a solid surface, so comets or asteroids would not suddenly crash into the Sun. In the Earth’s atmosphere, comets explode at altitudes of 5 to 60 miles above the solid surface anyway because of shock waves caused by aerodynamic forces. Pieces of the comet may or may not hit the surface of the Earth depending on the comet speed and composition.

    In the Sun, the scale of the atmosphere is so large that I suspect that solid bodies would have time to deccelerate and just fall gracefully down and down until they evaporate from the Sun’s heat.

    The video is actually time lapse over several hours, as shown by the motions of the stars as pointed out by 9. Theramansi. The Sun’s apparent motion is such that stars will take about 12 hours to pass behind the solar disk (apparent motion about one degree per day).

  22. Thameron

    If there are so very many comets then why do they always get short shrift when talking about Earth impactors? Asteroids get mentioned frequently, comets hardly ever. One would think they would be the #1 death threat to the planet given their apparent commonality.

  23. Zachary

    Did anyone notice the faster moving comet that hit the sun on the right side of the screen? You have to really be paying close attention.

  24. Tom

    That video really needs a soundtrack. Missile engine followed by a big BOOM!

    Yes – I know there is no sound in space…yada yada yada.

  25. Melusine

    OK, so now I got inspired to make a Sun video with the obvious Beatles song. Last time I made one with Saturn images and Chopin. Us non-scientists are very appreciative of the scientists and astronomers who inspire us with reality. Thanks, BA, amazing comet impact.

    http://youtu.be/VY6mAa6vOsI

  26. I remember once reading some insane conspiracy that these were actually missiles that the government was shooting at the sun for some nefarious purpose.

    Their proof was that sometimes you see two comets in very similar orbits impact the Sun in rapid succession, and that it would very unlikely that two random comets would have the same trajectory.

    I guess in their world comets don’t split apart.

  27. un malpaso

    That was the coolest thing I’ve seen since Shoemaker-Levy!

    And man, before I read the rest of the text, I REALLY thought that solar flare was the “splash” from the comet. I was about to seriously reconsider my opinion of the size of the Sun.. . and the power of the comet :)

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