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The sun has just experienced a storm—not of explosive flares and hot plasma, but of icy comets.
"The storm began on Dec 13th and ended on the 22nd," says Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab in Washington, DC. "During that time, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) detected 25 comets diving into the sun. It was crazy!"
Sundiving comets—a.k.a. "sungrazers"—are nothing new. SOHO typically sees one every few days, plunging inward and disintegrating as solar heat sublimes its volatile ices. "But 25 comets in just ten days, that's unprecedented," says Battams.
"The comets were 10-meter class objects, about the size of a room or a house," notes Matthew Knight of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. "As comets go, these are considered small."
In the last 10 days astronomers have counted at least 25 comets on the NASA SOHO Spacecraft, plunging into the Sun. It could mean a larger one ahead.
These comets could be part of a larger comet, according to astronomers. The comet may come without notice, much like the cosmic visitor named Comet Ikeya-Seki in 1965, which was seen in broad daylight and came without warning.
"Since SOHO was launched there has been a trend of increasing numbers of Kreutz sungrazers," he points out. A table in Knight's 2008 PhD thesis shows SOHO detecting 69 sungrazers in 1997 compared to 200 sungrazers in 2010. "The increase is significant and cannot be accounted for by improvements in SOHO or the increasing skill of comet hunters."