Sun-grazing comet and solar eruption duo create spectacular show

Added by on August 21, 2013

A sungrazing comet approaches at the same time as a filament eruption occurs. The comet's trail has been highlighted - the disk in the centre of the photo blocks out the sun making these types of observations possible. Photo credit - NASA.

A sungrazing comet approaches at the same time as a filament eruption occurs. The comet’s trail has been highlighted – the disk in the centre of the photo blocks out the sun making these types of observations possible. Photo credit – NASA.

An icy comet and a solar eruption created a spectacular show on Tuesday. The comet – about 30m (98 ft) in diameter – plunged into the sun at about the same time a solar filament erupted, resulting in a unique show as viewed by the SOHO satellite.

The comet is part of a class of comets called Kreutz Sungrazers – since the SOHO satellite’s launch in 1995, hundreds of these types of comets have been discovered, plus many of the small comets have been observed passing close to the sun’s surface.

Experts say the tiny comet fragment was likely millions of kilometres away from the sun’s surface when it passed behind the sun, as seen from the SOHO observatory satellite. The comet – a chunk of ice – likely disintegrated as it approached the sun.

While solar filament eruptions are relatively common, they have become more common this year because the sun is at it’s peak of its 11 year cycle. The sun’s surface becomes active with many sunspots and surface eruptions every 11 years; 2013 is the 24th cycle scientists have observed since they started recording solar activity in the year 1755.

The filament eruption observed on Tuesday resulted in what experts refer to as a full-halo coronal mass ejection, or CME. CMEs are large quantities of atomic mater and and electromagnetic radiation; the earth is sometimes effected by CMEs when it is facing the part of the sun where the CME occurred. The CME observed on Tuesday occurred on the far side of the sun, and experts say there’s a small chance it could affect earth in a few days.

“The earth might be caught in a small portion of the CME, which can result in some spectacular aurora borealis, or northern lights, often seen far into mid-latitude areas which include the northern half of the United States,” said an expert astronomer.

Scientists say the comet and filament eruption happening at the same time is a rare observation, however, this type of event likely occurred many times before we were able to observe the sun in great detail.

The SOHO observatory, launched in 1995, observes the sun’s activity and provides a wealth of information to scientists around the world.