Using instruments aboard NASA's twin STEREO spacecraft, the researchers were able to track the comet as it approached the sun and estimate an approximate time and place of impact. STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) was launched in 2006 and consists of identical spacecraft orbiting the sun, one ahead of Earth and one behind Earth, providing a stereo view of the sun.
After tracking the comet, the team studied data from the ground-based Mauna Loa Solar Observatory in Hawaii, and found images in the predicted spot of what appears to be a comet approaching the edge of the sun from behind the solar disk.
Hydrogen-alpha observations of the sun's edge from the Coronado instrument of the Mauna Loa Solar Observatory showing what the authors believe to be the comet approaching the solar limb.
Photo Credit: Claire Raftery, Juan Carlos Martinez-Oliveros, Samuel Krucker/UC Berkeley
"We believe this is the first time a comet has been tracked in 3-D space this low down in the solar corona," said Claire Raftery, a post-doctoral fellow newly arrived at UC Berkeley from Dublin's Trinity College.
The results of the research were presented today at the Miami, Fla., meeting of the American Astronomical Society.
Sungrazing comets, comprised of dust, rock and ice, are seldom tracked close to the sun because their brightness is overwhelmed by the solar disk. This comet apparently survived the heat of the corona and disappeared in the chromosphere, evaporating in the 100,000-degree (Kelvin) heat.
The team concluded that the comet was probably one of the Kreutz family of comets, a swarm of Trojan or Greek comets ejected from their orbit in 2004 by Jupiter, and that it made its first and only loop around the sun. The swarm probably resulted from the disintegration of a larger comet.
With an estimate of the impact zone within a circle about 1,000 kilometers in diameter, scientists searched online data from the Mauna Loa Solar Observatory to determine if they could see the comet next to the sun's edge in the ultraviolet region of the spectrum.
They found a short track, lasting about six minutes, just a few thousand kilometers above the sun's surface in the million-degree corona and 100,000-degree chromosphere.
Based on the comet's relatively short tail, about 3 million kilometers in length, the researchers believe that the comet contained heavier elements that do not evaporate readily. This would also explain how it penetrated so deeply into the chromosphere, surviving the strong solar wind as well as the extreme temperatures, before evaporating.
For their study, the team used the two coronagraphs on STEREO A and B and multiple instruments on SOHO, "demonstrat(ing) the importance of multi-view observations of non solar phenomena," they wrote in their poster.