The Sun Greets Comet Death Plunge With Big Explosion

By Tom Yulsman | August 20, 2013 4:39 pm

Screenshot of a movie of a comet diving toward the sun. Click for the movie. (Image source: NASA/SOHO)

In a movie captured by a NASA satellite today, a comet is seen hurtling toward the sun. And just as the streaking icy object is making its final death plunge, the sun lets loose with an explosion of many millions of tons of material from its outer atmosphere.

To the casual eye, it might appear that the comet crashed into the sun, triggering the coronal mass ejection, or CME. That’s exactly what I thought when I watched the movie.

To check it out for yourself, first have a look at the screenshot at the top of this page. Note the starting position of the comet at lower right. (Also note that the bright disk of the sun is blacked out so details won’t be overshadowed.)

Now, click on the image to watch the movie, which consists of images captured by NASA’s SOHO spacecraft starting yesterday (UTC) and continuing into today.

What do you see?

The comet plunges toward the sun, and just when it disappears at the black disk, a bright eruption of material takes place.

Cause and effect, right?

Well, I knew that looks could be deceiving. So I used Twitter to ask some solar experts whether the comet had crashed into the sun, causing a CME. Below is the response I got from the Solar Physics Department of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, home of a comet program:

A closer view, also captured by the SOHO spacecraft, clarifies what actually happened. Make sure to expand the video below to full-screen so you can get a clear view of the comet streaking in from the lower right. (Don’t blink!)

It’s clear that the ejection of material from the sun happens before the comet gets close to the sun. (And afterward, the sun produces another coronal mass ejection.)

In fact, no comet or asteroid has ever been seen to hit the sun’s surface, according to the folks at the Naval Research Laboratory. And consider this too:

A popular misconception is that sungrazing comets cause solar flares and CMEs (coronal mass ejections). While it is true that we have observed bright comets approach the Sun immediately before CME’s/flares, there is absolutely no connection between the two events.

Comets are simply too insignificant compared to the sun to have such an effect.

Well, I really learned something today!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: select, Sun, Top Posts
  • Christopher

    Whatever. I’ve seen that happen before, and believe there must be a connection. Maybe it’s some sort of preemptive strike against the comet, a way to defend itself. Or it’s the sun’s way of digesting the comet. Possibly the sun’s coronal tentacles can detect and eliminate certain types of comets for whatever reason. Or maybe the comet actually did hit the sun before the CME, but due to the heavy gravitational forces so close to the sun the light from the comet has been slowed down and it only appears to be so far from the sun when the CME occurs. If this were the case, why would we see the CME first? What if it were kind of like going to see your first fireworks show? You see the first blast, but strangely, hear no noise. Then suddenly, you hear the sound, since light is faster than sound. Well maybe the light from the CME gets to our detectors first because it’s of a higher frequency/shorter wavelength than the low energy comet’s light?

    • Shawn McIntyre

      Please, oh please, tell me you’re just joking…

      • Christopher

        If it makes you sleep better at night… What if the sun’s corona were like the skin on your arm? If you feel a mosquito land on it, then you smack it. If you feel a comet is so insignificant to the sun, then think about it this way: Have you ever seen how you can set up a tiny little bitty domino, then one a little bigger, then another even bigger, and so on, until you have a huge domino bigger even than you. You can tap on the smallest one and knock them all down, even the one bigger than yourself. Maybe the tiny comet was the tipping point for an event that would have eventually occurred anyway.

        • Shawn McIntyre

          You need to run- don’t walk, to the nearest high school, find a science teacher, and demand that you be better prepared for the world.

          • Christopher

            You should find a better use of your time, rather than being critical and condescending to everyone you interact with on the interwebs.

          • Shawn McIntyre

            I’m not being critical, I’m being serious. You’re implying that the sun is sentient enough to perceive and respond to a potential threat.

        • Adam

          The heat of the sun alone would vaporize any such comet or asteroid long before it ever reached the surface.

  • Christopher

    Just because a lake is more massive than a rain drop doesn’t mean the rain drop will not make a ripple. That ripple will affect larger ripples, like a signal riding a carrier wave. Also, have you ever seen super-heated water explode on contact with an impurity? It will not work with tap water because it has too many impurities. If you have distilled water and bring it up to the boiling point of regular tap water, it will not be boiling yet, although if you touch the surface with an impurity of some kind, it will violently explode.

  • Christopher

    Domino Chain Reaction – http://youtu.be/y97rBdSYbkg

    Superheating of water – http://youtu.be/1_OXM4mr_i0

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ImaGeo

ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.

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