NASA'S SDO captures final moments of a comet streaking across the Sun

By Phil Plait | July 7, 2011 12:53 pm

It’s not known how many comets orbit the Sun in our solar system, but the number may be in the trillions. They spend a long, long time in the deep reaches of the outer solar system, only occasionally plunging toward us. If they pass near a planet their orbit can be changed, and some wind up on paths that take them so close to the Sun they burn up. These are called sungrazers.

That is what NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory saw on the evening of July 5/6, 2011. This has been seen many times before, but this is the first time one has been seen streaking directly across the Sun’s face!

Here’s the video (I recommend watching it in HD — at least 720p –to make the comet easier to spot):

Did you see it? The whole event took about 20 minutes to unfold, and is seen here highly compressed in time. This is no perspective effect; that comet really was just above the Sun’s surface, and most likely impacted the Sun or disintegrated from the heat. Astronomers are even now going over the data from the event to see if they can determine the comet’s fate.

On the NASA Sun-Earth news site is more information, and a very cool video from SOHO showing the comet’s approach to the Sun.

Credit: NASA/SDO


Related posts:

- Amazing video of comet on a solar death dive
- Ten Things You Don’t Know About Comets
- The Sun lets loose a HUGE explosion
- Ten Things You Don’t Know About the Sun

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, NASA, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: comet, SDO, Sun, sungrazer

Comments (24)

  1. Catalina

    Whenever I see these sort of images I turn 7 again and have to say: AWESOME!!!!

    I guess Astronomy/Astrophysics is the best fountain of youth for folks like me. Thank you :)

  2. Michael Swanson

    So strange. A ball of ice and dirt floats around for a few billion years and then…oops! Too close to the Sun. Gone.

  3. Buxley

    That’s no comet! Obviously it’s the starship Enterprise slingshotting around the sun!

    Or maybe I’ve just watched WAY too much Star Trek for my own good. =)

    -Buxley

  4. Douglas Troy

    In what would later be viewed as a total failure on Ralph Kramden’s part to take into account the effect of Earth’s Magnetic field on his wife’s jewelry, Alice actually went “straight to the sun”.
    :P

  5. Jon

    Trillions? That’s a really big number. Billions, certainly, but trillions? Hm.
    j.

  6. Tensor

    What surprised me was that I could see it better in full speed rather than half speed.

  7. Grand Lunar

    The comet’s fate seems pretty clear to me; it’s roasted!

  8. Pete Jackson

    OK, we have a great opportunity for you amateur image processors here. The Sun is virtually unchanged from frame to frame on the video. How about a new video showing only the frame-to-frame differences? That should show the comet only!

  9. Wow. Neat video. But don’t blink! :-)

    Was that comet only discovered as it died or was it one of those that are known already?

  10. Charles
  11. Astrofiend

    Went to a SDO colloquium the other day. Goddamn this thing is doing some amazing work. Solar astronomers everywhere are literally freaking out with joy over their arsenal of weapons in orbit at the moment, and they are reaping the harvest HANDSOMELY.

  12. Astronomers are even now going over the data from the event to see if they can determine the comet’s fate.

    Er .. I’m guessing it vapourised! ;-)

    Or are they expecting it to go all the way through and emerge out the other side? ;-)

    I know this was taken in UV but what would the contrast have been in terms of visual magnitude – our daytime star at minus twenty seven apparent mag and this comet at .. well, what? Quite a few orders of magnitude less surely! ;-)

  13. @10. Pete Jackson :

    OK, we have a great opportunity for you amateur image processors here. The Sun is virtually unchanged from frame to frame on the video. How about a new video showing only the frame-to-frame differences? That should show the comet only!

    Great idea and I second that suggestion. :-)

    But is our Sun really completely static enough even during that short an interval or would its rotation (differential rotation too – faster in some parts than others at that) be noticeable and a possible issue?

    @4. Buxley :

    That’s no comet! Obviously it’s the starship Enterprise slingshotting around the sun!Or maybe I’ve just watched WAY too much Star Trek for my own good. =)

    Maybe I have too – but do you mean the Enterprise or perhaps a captured Klingon whaling ship instead? ;-)

    @5. Douglas Troy : LOL! :-D

  14. Crux Australis

    Comet Icarus.

  15. Kat

    Coooooool…..reminds me of a stone skipping across a lake. A lake of fire, in this case. :)

  16. Chris

    That wasn’t a comet. That was the Destiny refueling!
    (Long live Stargate: Universe!)

  17. psuedonymous

    I’m trying to find the images from the SDO archive, but I’m coming up with zip. Can anyone more familiar with how to ferret out the raw images lend a hand?

  18. jearley

    #19-psuedonymous
    Missed out by two minutes getting it directly from one of the former SDO project scientists- he was just in here telling how SOLIS worked. anyway, here:

    http://sdo.gsfc.nasa.gov/data/dataaccess.php

    This should give you access to the raw data feed. Good luck!

  19. psuedonymous

    That’s what I was using. 5/6 June, AIA171, no sign of anything like in Phil’s video (and trying to squint out the timecodes at the bottom-left, there don’t even appear to be images available for those times).

  20. psuedonymous

    Managed to track it down to a different site (http://www.lmsal.com/get_aia_data/) that indicates that there’s a 5-day period before AIA data is available

  21. MW

    I reckon it is a fake – it was all photoshopped.

    The number one failure of photoshoppers is to not get the shadows right on stuff they’ve added. Have a good look at this video – if it is so close to the surface, why can’t we see is its shadow? Huh? Can’t answer that one, can you!

    (Yes, I am kidding.)

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