See the last moments of a comet until it scorched by the sun

An international team of astronomers has recorded never-before-seen images of the death of a comet, which was destroyed as it passed close to the Sun. The extremely high temperatures shattered and charred the space rock.

It’s the first time a periodic comet in orbit close to the Sun has been seen to disintegrate like this — and it may explain why there aren’t many such bodies in the Solar System. The object in question was the 323P/SOHO.

toasted comet - Subaru Telescope/CFHT/Man-To Hui/David Tholen - Subaru Telescope/CFHT/Man-To Hui/David Tholen

Record of the Subaru Telescope, on 12/21/2020 (point in the center of the left image) and of the CFHT, on 2/11/2021 (right); the 323P/SOHO developed a long tail before disintegrating

Image: Subaru Telescope/CFHT/Man-To Hui/David Tholen

To capture the images, scientists used a fleet of telescopes, on the ground and in space, including Hubble. The findings were released this week in a study published in the Astronomical Journal.

Comets near the Sun

The Solar System is a hostile place. There are several space rocks that orbit the Sun — but it’s not as orderly a process as the planets. Gravitational effects from larger bodies destabilize the path of smaller and more wandering ones.

A common fate is to be thrust into an orbit close to the Sun — which will eventually result in a flaming dive. As this type of object passes so close to our star, they are difficult to visualize and study; most were detected accidentally, in observations with solar telescopes.

But even considering this difficulty, there are far fewer comets and asteroids near the Sun than expected. Something is tearing them apart before they have a chance to make their final, fatal plunge.

How was it registered?

To better understand this process, a group of astronomers from the United States, Canada, Germany, Taiwan and Macau (China) observed 323P/SOHO for a few months, with several telescopes, including: Canada France Hawaii (CFHT, in Hawaii), Gemini North (USA), Lowell’s Discovery (USA), Subaru (Japan), and the Space Hubble.

The comet’s orbit wasn’t very defined, so researchers weren’t sure exactly where to look for it. But Subaru’s wide field of vision acted like a net, allowing it to be found when approaching the Sun. It was the first time that this object was captured by a ground-based telescope.

With the new data, astronomers were able to better constrain the trajectory, and knew where to point the other telescopes. And they waited for the comet to “turn around” and start moving away from the Sun again – which never happened. Thus, they recorded the unique moment of his death.

But the work created more questions than answers. Among others, they found that 323P/SOHO spins on its axis very quickly, taking about half an hour per revolution, and that its color is unlike anything else in the Solar System.

About Raju Singh

Raju has an exquisite taste. For him, video games are more than entertainment and he likes to discuss forms and art.

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