Sun-Grazing Comet Became Visible During Last Week's Solar Eclipse

Solar eclipse in Argentina on December 14, 2020. Nehuenpg/Shutterstock.com

A recently discovered comet was spotted alongside the blocked-out Sun during the December 14 total solar eclipse. The eclipse was visible in totality in Chile and Argentina, and those who were lucky enough to see them might have been able to capture the little speck on their camera, as seen on the NASA website.

The comet was discovered on December 13 by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO, a joint mission of NASA and the European Space Agency. It was spotted thanks to citizen scientist Worachate Boonplod from Thailand who contributes to the Sungrazer Project, where members of the public look at SOHO images for evidence of these Sun-grazing comets.

The object in question was called C/2020 X3 (SOHO). During the time of the eclipse, it was moving at 725,000 kilometers (450,000 miles) per hour, roughly 4.3 million kilometers (2.7 million miles) from the surface of the Sun. The comet was about 15 meters (50 feet) in diameter, a truly tiny cosmic object. Unfortunately, its close trip near the Sun was fatal. The intense heat of our star destroyed it a few hours after the eclipse.

Comet  C/2020 X3 (SOHO) meeting its doom as seen by ESA/NASA SOHO during the eclipse. SOHO can always study the vicinity of the Sun by creating a fake eclipse as seen in this gif. ESA/NASA/SOHO/Karl Battams

C/2020 X3 (SOHO) was the 4,108th comet discovered in SOHO images, and the 3,524th part of the Kreutz family of comets. These were all part of a much larger object that was broken apart by the Sun thousands of years ago. It is believed that this progenitor was the Great Comet of 371 BCE, as seen by Aristotle among many others. The possibly 120-kilometer (75-mile) diameter object split apart afterward, with some of its larger fragments producing bright visible comets such as the Great Comet of 1106, the Great Comet of 1843, the Great Comet of 1882, and more recently comet Ikeya-Seki.

Astronomers think that this group of comets could continue their perilous journey close to the Sun for many thousands of years. At that point, gravitational perturbation might have spread them in such a way that they no longer appear to have originated from the same parent body. It is also possible that – like in the case of C/2020 X3 (SOHO) – most of these comets would be nothing but cosmic dust by the time the family is gravitationally dispersed.

Kreutz comets have a history of connection to eclipses. In 1882, one of these objects was seen streaking past the eclipsed Sun. Photographs at the time showed how quickly it moved over the 110 seconds, suggesting a speed of 500 kilometers (300 miles) per second.

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