Like Icarus, the mythological character who plunged to his death after flying too close to the sun, NASA has captured on video the final moments of a comet as it took a solar swan dive earlier this week.
The unnamed comet — a dirty ice ball just 300 feet in diameter – was quickly vaporized as it careened into the sun on Monday, as shown in images caught by the Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). NASA says it was most likely a member of a group of sun-grazing comets known as the Kreutz family.
There’s a sudden, dramatic flash that seems to accompany the comet’s demise, but it turns out to be “just a coincidence,” according to The Los Angeles Times. “That light is caused by an explosion on the far side of the sun that resulted in a coronal mass ejection,” the newspaper says.
It’s not the first time that a comet’s death dive has been captured in detail. Last year, the final moments of another Kreutz family member was caught by SOHO. And a month before that, Comet Lovejoy made a similar leap, but survived.
NASA says “life is perilous” for sun-grazing comets such as the one that met its end on Monday:
“The mixture of ice and dust that makes up a comet’s nucleus is heated like the proverbial snowball in hell, and it can survive a visit to the Sun only if it is quite large. What’s more, the strong tidal effect of the Sun’s gravity can tear the loosely glued nucleus apart.”
“In the past 15 years, more than 1,400 of these dirty snowballs have been detected, likely originating from a giant parent comet 20 to 100 kilometers wide (12 to 62 miles) that broke apart as recently as 2,500 years ago. However, until now, none of the telescopes trained on the sun was sensitive enough to follow any of these comets to their demise in the sun’s atmosphere.”