The Final Flight of a Sun-Diving Comet

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Science  20 Jan 2012:
Vol. 335, Issue 6066, pp. 296-297
DOI: 10.1126/science.1217168

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Over the past decade, solar monitoring observatories have detected and discovered more than 1600 discrete members of the Kreutz family of comets. These comets are associated by common orbits and their propensity to come within a few solar radii (RSun) of the Sun. They can be detected as they evaporate and disintegrate, throwing out huge amounts of fine dust and gas, which can be seen even against the Sun's glare. Thought to be the fragmented remnants of the passage of a giant (∼10 to 50 km radius) parent comet several thousand years ago, the Kreutz family has been the subject of intense study by both amateur and professional astronomers using a plethora of optical and ultraviolet instrumentation onboard a number of spacecraft designed to study the Sun. On page 324 of this issue, Schrijver et al. (1) report combined observations from the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), the Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), and Solar-Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) detailing the path of comet C/2011 N3 (SOHO) as it passes through and disintegrates in the Sun's lower corona. Such a method of cometary study may provide insight into the makeup of the parent body as well as the constituent material of the early solar system.