Published May 13, 2011
Now THAT's a close encounter.
NASA's solar observatory captured a stunning video of a comet streaking towards the sun between Tuesday and Wednesday -- and the aftermath when it collided with the tremendous ball of plasma.
The video, captured by NASA's Solar & Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), appears to show a fireball jet out following the collision. That's not quite what happened, NASA explained. Instead, a coronal mass ejection coincidentally blasted out to the right just as the comet approaches and is vaporized by the sun.
The comet is probably part of the Kreutz family -- remnants of a single giant comet that broke up many centuries ago, and crash against its surface from time to time. It was discovered by amateur astronomer Sergey Shurpakov, the space agency said.
In this coronagraph, an opaque disk blocks the glare of the sun like an artificial eclipse, revealing faint objects that no Earth-bound telescope could possibly see. It's intended to allow scientists to view the faint structures in the sun's corona -- but it also reveals sungrazing comets like this one.
NASA has discovered hundreds of such comets over the years -- but none that have ended their existence in such an eye-opening fashion. In late December, 2010, the sun dealt with an entire storm of icy comets that dove into its heart and died a similar, fiery death.
"The storm began on Dec 13th and ended on the 22nd," said Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab in Washington, DC. "During that time, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) detected 25 comets diving into the sun. It was crazy!"
Scientists have yet to find a convincing physical connection between sun-grazing comets and coronal mass ejections, according to NASA.