Photo: Massive sun-orbiting comet has tail both front and behind

Astronomers captured "a stunning sequence of images" using NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory spacecraft.
Chris Young
SOHO comet
An image of comet 96P Machholz.

Astronomers caught a glimpse of a comet leaving a large trail of dust behind as it travels near our sun.

The massive 3.7-mile-wide (6-kilometer) comet, called 96P Machholz, has long been studied by astronomers due to a surprising chemical composition. In 2008, a chemical analysis of the space rock showed it has surprisingly low proportions of carbon for a short-period comet.

Additionally, closely approached, the comet appears to have tails spreading both behind and in front of its trajectory.

Observing a sun-orbiting comet

The team of astronomers observed 96P Machholz using NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft as it closely approached the sun between January 29 and February 2 this year. The comet orbits our sun once every 5.3 Earth years.

The SOHO images reveal new details of the tails behind and ahead of the massive space rock. Previous observations have also shown the impressive feature, suggesting that the comet may have undergone some kind of fragmentation event recently.

The researchers used a SOHO instrument called the Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph Experiment (LASCO) for the latest approach. This instrument provides long exposures and features a number of color filters that they utilize to gain an enhanced view of the comet's debris trail.

The LASCO instrument's orange filter picks up a narrow range of wavelengths. It is sensitive to sodium, which is typically emitted by near-sun comets when materials sublimate — meaning they are heated so rapidly they are converted from a solid or ice form directly into a gas.

Comet observation plan "worked flawlessly"

The SOHO mission website points out that the plan to use LASCO "worked flawlessly, and to the delight of Zhang, Battams, and the entire SOHO team, LASCO captured a stunning sequence of images that not only revealed a string of fragments but also clearly show the thin, extended debris trail that perfectly follows the entirety of the portion of 96P's orbit that passes through the LASCO field of view!"

Now that the researchers have an impressive sequence of images in their possession, they will continue to analyze 96P Machholz to learn more about its twin tails ahead of its following approach in June 2028.

Source: SOHO mission website

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