A comet first spotted just the day before made an appearance as Chile and Argentina watched the total solar eclipse on Dec. 14, 2020.
Just a tiny speck in the sky, the comet, dubbed C/2020 X3 (SOHO), was traveling at roughly 450,000 mph (720,000 kph), about 2.7 million miles (4.3 million kilometers) from the sun’s surface when the moon passed in front of our star.
Thai amateur astronomer Worachate Boonplod first saw the comet on Dec. 13 through the NASA-funded Sungrazer Project, which helps amateurs search for and discover new comets in images from a joint European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA mission, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO).
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Knowing that the eclipse was coming, Boonplod was interested to see whether the newly identified comet might show up in the sun’s outer atmosphere.
Lo and behold, it did; at just around the time of the eclipse , the comet was rushing by. The object is a type of comet called a “Kruetz” sungrazer, which means it is a fragment of a much larger parent comet that broke up over 1,000 years ago and continues to orbit around the sun.
Comet hunters most commonly find Kruetz sungrazers in SOHO images, which mimic total solar eclipses: A solid oscillating disk in the SOHO camera blocks out the sun’s blinding light to reveal dimmer features in the sun’s outer atmosphere. The comet Boonplod found was the 3,534th known Kreutz sungrazer.
Unfortunately, the comet met its end shortly after Boonplod discovered it. The icy rock, which was 50 feet in diameter (150 meters, or about the length of a semi truck), disintegrated into dust a few hours before reaching its closest point to the sun, unable to handle the intense solar radiation.
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