NASA satellites watch comet death dive into the Sun

NASA’s twin satellites capture comet melt into hot Sun

UC Berkeley/comet path to Sun
The collision of a comet with the Sun has been captured by instruments onboard NASA's twin Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) satellites. 

Solar physicists at the University of California, Berkeley said the comet was probably one from what's known as the Kreutz family of comets, a swarm of comets ejected from their orbit in 2004 by Jupiter, that typically orbit close to the Sun.  Astronomers said this one was making its first and only loop by the Sun. 

NASA telescopes watch cosmic violence, mysteries unravel 

The swarm probably resulted from the disintegration of a larger comet and this one apparently survived the heat of the Sun's outer atmosphere, or corona and disappeared in the next layer of the atmosphere known as the chromosphere, evaporating in the 180,000 degrees Fahrenheit heat, the scientists said.  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.

NASA's STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) satellites, are currently in orbit around the Sun and provide researchers with constant details about activities on the Sun's surface.   NASA'S STEREO satellites -- one ahead of Earth in its orbit, the other trailing behind - were launched in 2006 and trace the flow of energy and matter from the Sun to Earth.  According to NASA, the satellites will offer 3D images of the Sun's coronal mass ejections; violent eruptions of matter from the sun that can disrupt satellites and power grids, and help scientists understand why they happen.

Using instruments aboard NASA's twin STEREO spacecraft and data from the ground-based Mauna Loa Solar Observatory, UC Berkeley scientists were able to track the comet as it approached the Sun and estimate an approximate time and place of impact. 

Based on the comet's relatively short tail, about 3 million kilometers in length, they believe that it contained heavier elements that do not evaporate readily. This would also explain how it penetrated so deeply into the chromosphere, surviving the strong solar wind as well as the extreme temperatures, before evaporating, the researchers stated.   

The team will presented its data meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Miami this week. 

The comet's Sun death is just the latest in a series of cool space activity spotted by NASA spacecraft. 

An instrument on NASA's Hubble Space Telescope last week observed a planet that is slowly being eaten by its parent star.

The doomed Jupiter-sized planet has moved so close to its sun-like parent star that it is spilling its atmosphere onto the star. This happens because the planet gets so hot that its atmosphere expands to the point where the star's gravity pulls it in. The planet will likely be completely devoured in 10 million years, according to a Space Telescope Science Institute release. 

The planet, called WASP-12b, is the hottest known world ever discovered, with an atmosphere roiling at 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit, the institute stated.  The planet is 40% more massive than Jupiter and completes an orbit every 1.1 days. 

Prior to that, the Hubble's equipment spotted a huge star -- 90 times more massive than the Sun -- blasting across space at over than 250,000 miles an hour. 

The runaway star is the most extreme case of a very massive star that has been kicked out of its home by a group of even heftier siblings, according to the Space Telescope Science Institute. Runaway stars can be made by running into one or two heavier siblings in a massive, dense cluster and get booted out through what scientists called a stellar game of pinball. 

NASA installed the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph last May when it revamped Hubble. According to NASA, the device is designed to study the large-scale structure of the universe and how galaxies, stars and planets formed and evolved. It will help determine how elements needed for life such as carbon and iron first formed and how their abundances have increased over the lifetime of the universe. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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