spaceSpace and Physics

Space Telescopes Just Watched A Comet Graze The Sun


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

Comet 96P as seen by STEREO. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/STEREO/Bill Thompson/Joy Ng

A NASA and ESA telescope has spotted the return of a comet to the Sun after it had spent some time away on its travels. Aww.

The comet is called 96P, and it was spotted by the Solar and Heliophysics Observatory (SOHO) on October 25. It was seen approaching the Sun, before passing out of view again on October 30.


Also called comet Machholz, it completes an orbit of the Sun every 5.24 years. It comes as close as 18 million kilometers (11 million miles), a tenth the distance of Earth and the Sun, and swings out beyond the orbit of Jupiter.

This journey makes it a short-period Sungrazing comet, and it’s actually the comet that SOHO has spotted the most often. It was seen in 1996, 2002, 2007, 2012, and then this year as well.

It wasn’t just SOHO that spotted it, as NASA’s Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) also got a glimpse between October 26 and 28.

“It is extremely rare for comets to be seen simultaneously from two different locations in space, and these are the most comprehensive parallel observations of comet 96P yet,” NASA said in a statement.


“Scientists are eager to use these combined observations to learn more about the comet’s composition, as well as its interaction with the solar wind, the constant flow of charged particles from the Sun.”

How SOHO saw Comet 96P. ESA/NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/SOHO/NRL/Karl Battams/Joy Ng

Interestingly, back in 2008, some astronomers speculated whether this comet may have originated outside our Solar System. That’s because it has a weird orbit that’s really highly inclined to the plane of the Solar System. The chances of snagging a comet in this way are pretty slim though, so that’s never been confirmed.

NASA notes that this comet is unlikely to be interstellar but, rather, it is part of a large and diverse family that originated “from a much larger parent comet that over millennia, broke up into smaller fragments.”

But it’s quite timely because just the other day we had what we think is our true first confirmed interstellar visitor. The rock flew through our Solar System and is now on its way out, unlikely to ever return.


As for 96P though, well, we’ll probably get to see it quite a few more times. However, scientists on this pass discovered a fragment orbiting with the comet, following on from two that were seen in 2012. This suggests the comet may be breaking apart as it repeatedly passes near the Sun.


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