Comet 96P Returns to Scrape the Surface of the Sun

Astronomers seem to think the comet was simply 'headed back home' but got a little closer to the sun than researchers anticipated.
Shelby Rogers

It's a good year for comet and asteroid fans, as it seems they're constantly making space headlines. A NASA and ESA telescope recently caught one comet 'coming home' to the Sun after traversing the universe. The comet is known as 96P. It was spotted this time around by the Solar and Heliophysics Observatory (SOHO) in late October. It approached the sun and then passed out of view on October 30. 

Comet 96P Returns to Scrape the Surface of the Sun
Source: ESA/NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/SOHO/NRL/Karl Battams/Joy Ng

As NASA pointed out in its recent study of 96P, "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 comet 96P yet."

Like all other comets, 96P (aka Machholz) completes its visibility to researchers on cycle. However, unlike the famed Halley's Comet, Machholz completes an orbit around the sun once every 5.24 years. And, by comet standards, Machholz gets close -- really close. The 96P comet sweeps by the sun at a toasty 11 million miles. And being that close to the sun means scientists have kept a watchful eye on Machholz comet for years. 

Comet 96P Returns to Scrape the Surface of the Sun
Source: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/STEREO/Bill Thompson/Joy Ng

“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 William Thompson, STEREO chief observer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.


The Machholz comet also has an interesting history for those aspiring amateur astronomers. Machholz was named for amateur astronomer Don Machholz in 1986. 

"Scientists find comet 96P 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," NASA said in a statement. "Comet 96P 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, scientists can learn more about the nature and origins of this complex family."

Asteroids getting in on the fun

It's not just comets that are making headlines. Just a day before SOHO released its report about the comet returning 'home' to visit the sun, NASA's Hubble telescope discovered something else pretty extraordinary. Several asteroids were seen photobombing other galaxies. (Yes, seriously.) On average, the asteroids picked up on film by Hubble reside roughly 160 million miles from Earth, which is relatively close in astronomical terms, NASA pointed out. 

Why Bother Studying Comets and Asteroids?

Other than their incredible visual awe, comets provide us with one of the best hopes of figuring out how water exists elsewhere in our galaxy. Comets are the few remnants of materials formed in the coldest parts of the solar system. Thus, studying these rare events get astronomers, physicists, and other researchers one step closer to figuring out the possibility for water on other planets. Scientists want to know whether comets exhaust their supply of gas and ice or if it's somehow sealed into their interiors. 

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