Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Recently Discovered Comet Seen During 2020 Total Solar Eclipse

As Chile and Argentina witnessed the total solar eclipse on Dec. 14, 2020, unbeknownst to skywatchers, a tiny speck was flying past the Sun — a recently discovered comet.

This comet was first spotted in satellite data by Thai amateur astronomer Worachate Boonplod on the NASA-funded Sungrazer Project — a citizen science project that invites anyone to search for and discover new comets in images from the joint European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO.

The recently discovered comet C/2020 X3 (SOHO) seen in the LASCO C2 camera on the ESA/NASA SOHO observatory. (Image: ESA / NASA / SOHO / Karl Battams)

Boonplod discovered the comet on Dec. 13, the day before the eclipse. He knew the eclipse was coming and was eager to see whether his new comet discovery might appear in the Sun’s outer atmosphere as a small speck in eclipse photographs.

The comet, named C/2020 X3 (SOHO) by the Minor Planet Center, is a “Kreutz” sungrazer. This family of comets originated from a large parent comet that broke up into smaller fragments well over a thousand years ago and continues to orbit around the Sun today. Kreutz sungrazing comets are most commonly found in SOHO images. SOHO’s camera works by mimicking total solar eclipses: A solid occulting disk blocks out the otherwise blinding light of the Sun, revealing dimmer features in its outer atmosphere and other celestial objects like comets. To date, 4,108 comets have been discovered in SOHO images, with this comet being the 3,524th Kreutz sungrazer spotted.

(left) The LASCO C2 camera on the ESA/NASA SOHO observatory shows comet C/2020 X3 (SOHO) in the bottom left-hand corner. (right) A composite image of the total solar eclipse on Dec. 14, 2020, based on 65 frames taken by Andreas Möller (Arbeitskreis Meteore e.V.) in Piedras del Aguila, Argentina, and processed by Jay Pasachoff and Roman Vanur. (Image: ESA / NASA / SOHO / Andreas Möller (Arbeitskreis Meteore e.V.)/processed by Jay Pasachoff and Roman Vanur / Joy Ng. Eclipse image used with permission)

Around the time the eclipse image was taken, the comet was traveling at roughly 450,000 miles per hour, about 2.7 million miles from the Sun’s surface. The comet was around 50 feet in diameter — about the length of a semitruck. It then disintegrated to dust particles due to intense solar radiation, a few hours before reaching its closest point to the Sun.

Provided by: Joy Ng, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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Troy Oakes
Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.
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