soho comet sun

A new comet was discovered yesterday, and it's already history. "The first comet discovery of the decade goes to... SOHO!" reports Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab in Washington DC. During the early hours of Jan. 13th, coronagraphs onboard SOHO (the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) spotted the tiny comet plunging into the sun, where it rapidly evaporated:

SOHO is the most prolific comet hunter in history. "It's actually quite unusual that it has taken 13 days for SOHO to find a comet," notes Battams. "This is the furthest we've gone into a new calendar year without a discovery since 2008. We're closing in on 3,900 comets discovered, and should comfortably pass 4,000 sometime this year!"

The doomed comet, R.I.P., was a member of the Kreutz family. Kreutz sungrazers are fragments from the breakup of a single giant comet many centuries ago. They get their name from 19th century German astronomer Heinrich Kreutz, who studied them in detail. Hundreds of Kreutz fragments pass by the sun and disintegrate every year--a fact that has helped SOHO pad its totals. In fact, the second comet of the new decade will probably be a Kreutz sungrazer, too. Stay tuned :)

Note: When SOHO discovers a comet, it always has help. A human watching coronagraph images is required to spot the sungrazer. In this case, says Battams, "The comet was noticed by Worachate Boonplod (Thailand) - one of our most successful amateur comet hunters."