February 28, 2021
Sneaky comet photo-bombed the total solar eclipse before disintegrating

Sneaky comet photo-bombed the total solar eclipse before disintegrating

This GIF shows the SOHO satellite’s view of the comet Dec. 14, the same day as the total solar eclipse. The white mark points out the comet.

ESA/NASA/SOHO/Karl Battams

Whether you saw the Dec. 14 total solar eclipse in person, online or in images afterward, you probably didn’t notice a bonus celestial object making a subtle appearance. A newly discovered comet neared the sun at the same time.

Thai amateur astronomer Worachate Boonplod was the first to find the comet through NASA’s citizen science Sungrazer Project. The project challenges people to spot new comets in observations from NASA and the European Space Agency’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, aka SOHO.

The comet — named C/2020 X3 (SOHO) — was a Kreutz sungrazer, one of a group of comets that have a common origin point and are fragments of what was once a single comet. “To date, 4,108 comets have been discovered in SOHO images, with this comet being the 3,524th Kreutz sungrazer spotted,” said NASA in a statement last week.

Boonplod discovered the comet the day before the total solar eclipse, which tracked across a narrow area of South America. 

The comet not only appeared in SOHO views, but could also be found in shots taken during the total eclipse from Earth. It wouldn’t be the sort of thing a casual viewer would notice because it was a hard-to-see speck. 

NASA tweeted a comparison of a SOHO image and a composite image from photographer Andreas Möller, who captured the eclipse from Argentina. 

The comet was a mere 50 feet (15 meters) in diameter and was zipping along at 450,000 mph (724,000 kph) at the time of the eclipse. Its moments of glory were short-lived. NASA revealed its fate: “It then disintegrated to dust particles due to intense solar radiation.”

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