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22nd of November 2017

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ESA and NASA Solar Observatories Snap Sungrazing Comet | Astronomy | Sci-News.com

The NASA/ESA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and NASA’s Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) have captured amazing photos of 96P/Machholz, a short-period sungrazing comet.

When Comet 96P/Machholz appeared in SOHO’s view in 2012, astronomers discovered two tiny comet fragments some distance ahead of the main body, signaling the comet was actively changing. This time around they have detected a third fragment -- another breadcrumb in the trail that indicates 96P/Machholz is still evolving. Image credit: ESA / NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center / SOHO / Steele Hill.

When Comet 96P/Machholz appeared in SOHO’s view in 2012, astronomers discovered two tiny comet fragments some distance ahead of the main body, signaling the comet was actively changing. This time around they have detected a third fragment — another breadcrumb in the trail that indicates 96P/Machholz is still evolving. Image credit: ESA / NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center / SOHO / Steele Hill.

Comet 96P/Machholz was discovered on May 12, 1986, by amateur astronomer Donald Machholz.

The comet has an estimated diameter of 4 miles (6.4 km) and completes an orbit around the Sun every 5.24 years. It makes its closest approach to the Sun at a toasty 11 million miles — a very close distance for a comet.

Astronomers find this comet interesting because it has an unusual composition and is the parent of a large, diverse family, referring to a group of comets sharing a common orbit and originating from a much larger parent comet that over millennia, broke up into smaller fragments.

According to scientists, 96P/Machholz is the parent of two separate comet groups, both of which were discovered by citizen scientists studying SOHO data, as well as a number of Earth-crossing meteor streams.

By studying the comet’s ongoing evolution, astronomers can learn more about the nature and origins of this complex family.

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SOHO spotted 96P/Machholz in 1996, 2002, 2007, 2012 and 2017, making it the spacecraft’s most frequent cometary visitor.

The comet entered the lower right corner of the spacecraft’s field of view on October 25, 2017, and skirted up and around the right edge before leaving on October 30.

STEREO watched the comet from the opposite side of Earth’s orbit between October 26 and 28.

“It is extremely rare for comets to be seen simultaneously from two different locations in space, and these are the most comprehensive parallel observations of 96P/Machholz yet,” NASA astronomers said.

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Both missions gathered polarization measurements of the comet.

These are measurements of sunlight in which all the light waves become oriented the same way after passing through a medium — in this case, particles in the tail of the comet.

By pooling the polarization data together, astronomers can extract details on the particles that the light passed through.

“Polarization is a strong function of the viewing geometry, and getting multiple measurements at the same time could potentially give useful information about the composition and size distribution of the tail particles,” said STEREO chief observer Dr. William Thompson, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

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