Observations of a Comet on Collision Course with the Sun

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Science  26 Feb 1982:
Vol. 215, Issue 4536, pp. 1097-1102
DOI: 10.1126/science.215.4536.1097


A brilliant new comet (1979 XI: Howard-Koomen-Michels) was discovered in data from the Naval Research Laboratory's orbiting SOLWIND coronagraph. An extensive sequence of pictures, telemetered from the P78-1 satellite, shows the coma, accompanied by a bright and well-developed tail, passing through the coronagraph's field of view at afew million kilometers from the sun. Preliminary orbital calculations based on the observed motion of the comet's head and morphology of the tail indicate that this previously unreported object is a sungrazing comet and may be one of the group of Kreutz sungrazers. It appears from the data that the perihelion distance was less than 1 solar radius, so that the cometary nucleus encountered dense regions of the sun's atmosphere, was completely vaporized, and did not reappear after the time of closest approach to the sun. After this time, however, cometary debris, scattered into the ambient solar wind, caused a brightening of the corona over one solar hemisphere and to heliocentric distances of 5 to 10 solar radii.