NASA Reports Comet Flying Dangerously Close to the Sun

Tuesday, 07 November 2017 - 11:26AM
Tuesday, 07 November 2017 - 11:26AM
NASA Reports Comet Flying Dangerously Close to the Sun
Some comets are clearly thrillseekers.

96P is a cosmic rock that's been seen buzzing around the solar system with great regularity over the past few decades. In 1996, 2002, 2007, and 2012, this comet has shown up on our sensors, continuing its ever more daring circuit of the solar system as it flies uncomfortably close to the big, bright star at the center of our interplanetary neighborhood.

Last month, 96P was spotted again, both on October 25, when it was seen disappearing into the hot intensity of the sun's immediate vicinity, and on October 30, when it was spotted making its way triumphantly away from the sun, ready to begin another lap of the solar system.

NASA watched the little comet on its intense journey with interest, not least because it's a lot of fun to see something get so close to the sun without actually getting caught in its immediate gravity well and sucked down into fiery oblivion.

According to a recent press release:

Opening quote
"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. Scientists are eager to use these combined observations to learn more about the comet's composition, as well as its interaction with the solar wind, the constant flow of charged particles from the Sun."
Closing quote

Having a look at what 96P looked like both before and after its hair-raising trip near to the sun may hold the key to understanding more about what impact solar output, such as cosmic rays and solar wind, have on matter.

If this sounds familiar, it's an experiment that occurs in the version of the origin of the Fantastic Four that appeared in their first movie in 2005. Thus far, there's no evidence to suggest that 96P's frequent contact with solar material will have given it stretchy powers, but it probably is a big rock, just like The Ever-Lovin', Blue-Eyed Thing.

96P's unusually skewed orbit takes it extremely close to the sun before it shoots off in a completely different direction. It was originally speculated that the comet might actually be a visitor from another solar system, which would explain why it barrels towards the sun in such a foolhardy and dangerous manner.

Now, astronomers theorize that 96P was probably once part of a much larger comet that split up, sending chunks flying in lots of different directions. This would make sense, especially considering that photo evidence suggests that something similar is now happening to 96P as it is potentially fracturing into two smaller comets yet again.

It turns out you can't repeatedly fly close to the sun without eventually sustaining some damage. 96P might not last forever if it continues to break down into smaller fragments.

If so, it'll be a shame to see this brave little rock go. While it's obviously not actively choosing its own orbit, it's fun to think of this comet as a rocky daredevil, constantly on the hunt for an adrenaline rush as it passes closer and closer to the sun.

Perhaps it's time to rename 96P Icarus—just like the character from ancient lore, this comet will eventually be undone by attempting to fly too close to the sun.