The destruction of a comet as it approached the sun was caught on camera Saturday by a long-lived space observatory. The comet, a stranger to astronomers, is now doomed to anonymous obscurity.
The comet's death plunge was recorded by the sun-watching Solar and Heliospheric Observatory as the previously unknown icy wanderer barreled down on the sun from cosmic parts unknown, according to Spaceweather.com, a Web site dedicated to monitoring space weather.
The comet appeared in SOHO images on Friday but by early this morning it had disappeared entirely, Spaceweather.com reported.
This is the third comet to swing by the sun this year. Known as sun-grazing comets, the icy objects most likely come from the outer solar system, though it is unlikely that any survive their encounters with the sun.
The doomed comet spotted by SOHO this week, as well as the others seen this year, may be part of group of objects called Kreutz comets — named after the 19th century German astronomer Heinrich Kreutz.
It was Kreutz who first demonstrated that such comets were related, and may the shattered remains of a single, giant comet that broke aboard several centuries ago [more comet photos].
Astronomers estimate that there may be more than 1,600 comets in our solar system that swing through its heart to pass by the sun during their travels. As of 2000, the definitive count for sun-grazing comets passed the 1,000 mark.
The SOHO spacecraft is in a prime position to catch sun-grazing comets as they swing by or are devoured by the sun. The mission is a joint effort by NASA and the European Space Agency.
SOHO uses a center-mounted disk to block the blinding glare of the sun in order to observe solar flares, coronal mass ejections and other weather, as well as objects near the sun. It has been instrumental in finding sun-grazing comets since it began studying the sun in 1995.
Prior to the SOHO mission, astronomers had found only 16 sun-grazing comets using space-based telescopes, NASA officials have said.