Solar physicists at the University of California, Berkeley, have captured for the first time the collision of a comet with the sun.
Using instruments aboard NASA's twin STEREO spacecraft, researchers at UC Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory were able to track the comet as it approached the sun and estimate an approximate time and place of impact. STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory), launched in 2006, consists of identical spacecraft orbiting the sun, one ahead of Earth and one behind Earth, providing a stereo view of the sun.
The researchers then looked at data from the ground-based Mauna Loa Solar Observatory in Hawaii, and found images in the predicted spot of what appears to be a comet approaching the edge of the sun from behind the solar disk.
"We believe this is the first time a comet has been tracked in 3-D space this low down in the solar corona," said Claire Raftery, a post-doctoral fellow. Sungrazing comets, comprised of dust, rock and ice, are seldom tracked close to the sun because their brightness is overwhelmed by the solar disk. This comet apparently survived the heat of the corona and disappeared in the chromosphere, evaporating in the 100,000-degree (Kelvin) heat.
The resarchers concluded that the comet was probably one of the Kreutz family of comets, a swarm of Trojan or Greek comets ejected from their orbit in 2004 by Jupiter, and that it made its first and only loop around the sun.
Attention was first drawn to the comet after seeing it mentioned in a summary of March 12, 2010, observations by STEREO and by SOHO, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. The comet's long, bright tail of dust and ions tagged it as a sungrazing comet seen often by solar astronomers and observatories such as STEREO.