A newly discovered sungrazer comet was photographed approaching the sun during last week’s solar eclipse before it evaporated into dust particles.
The comet was first spotted by Thai amateur astronomer Worachate Boonplod in satellite data on December 13, a day before the eclipse, NASA said on Saturday.
He was taking part in the NASA-funded Sungrazer Project — a citizen science project that invites anyone to search for new comets in images from the joint European Space Agency and NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO.
The comet, named C/2020 X3 (SOHO), is known as a Kreutz sungrazer, NASA said. This family of comets originated from a large parent comet that broke up into smaller fragments well over a thousand years ago. The sungrazers continue to orbit around the sun today.
Boonplod knew the eclipse was coming, and was eager to see whether his new comet discovery might appear in the sun’s outer atmosphere.
A satellite image of the sun, colored in red, shows a bright speck of light orbiting the Sun. Around the time the eclipse image was taken, the comet was traveling at roughly 450,000 miles per hour, about 2.7 million miles from the sun’s surface, NASA said.
The comet was around 50 feet (15 meters) in diameter — about the length of a semitruck, NASA said. It then disintegrated to dust particles due to intense solar radiation, a few hours before reaching its closest point to the sun.
People in Chile and Argentina were treated to the final total solar eclipse of 2020 last Monday. During a total solar eclipse, the moon completely blocks the sun except for the sun’s outer atmosphere, called the corona, to create a beautiful ring of light.
Kreutz sungrazer comets are most commonly found in SOHO images. The space observatory’s camera works by mimicking total solar eclipses: A solid disk blocks out the otherwise blinding light of the sun, revealing dimmer features in its outer atmosphere and other celestial objects like comets.
To date, 4,108 comets have been discovered in SOHO images, with this comet being the 3,524th Kreutz sungrazer spotted, NASA said.
As far as is known, no comets have ever actually been seen to hit the solar surface, or the photosphere, the European Space Agency said.
The Kreutz sungrazers get to within about 31,000 miles (50,000 kilometers) of the surface, just passing through the lower regions of the solar atmosphere (the corona). Most usually evaporate in the hot solar atmosphere.