Earlier this week, NASA and ESA scientists working with the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft caught a glimpse of a tiny comet barreling towards the Sun. As you'll see in this video, the poor thing never had a chance.
According to Karl Battams of the U.S. Naval Research Lab, the object was only a few tens of meters across. It was clearly far too small to survive the intense bombardment of solar radiation as it made the ill-fated flyby.
Strangely — and as if on cue — the Sun gave off a magnificent coronal mass ejection (CME) at roughly the same moment the comet disintegrated, but there was probably no interaction between the two phenomena.
Spaceweather explains what happened, and where the comet likely came from:
Occasionally, readers ask if sundiving comets can trigger solar explosions. There's no known mechanism for comets to spark solar flares. Comets are thought to be too small and fragile to destabilize the sun's magnetic field. Plus, this comet was still millions of kilometers from the sun when the explosion unfolded.
The comet, R.I.P., was a member of the Kreutz family. Kreutz sungrazers are fragments from the breakup of a single giant comet many centuries ago. They get their name from 19th century German astronomer Heinrich Kreutz, who studied them in detail. Several Kreutz fragments pass by the sun and disintegrate every day. Most, measuring less than a few meters across, are too small to see, but occasionally a bigger fragment like this one attracts attention.
As an aside, this wasn't ISON; that's a different comet.
Back in 2012, scientists captured the first footage of a comet smashing into the sun.
[Spaceweather; Images: NASA/ESA/SOHO]