An Unusual Comet Skimmed Past the Sun

A new comet was discovered sling-shotting around the sun by ESA/NASA’s SOHO. The comet is not from any known family of comets.


An comet circles around the sun in this movie from ESA/NASA’s SOHO. The comet is somewhat unusual as it’s not form any known family of comets. This is the 2,875th comet discovered by SOHO. Image Credit: ESA/NASA/SOHO/Hill

An unusual comet skimmed past the sun on February 18-21, 2015, as captured by the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO.

This comet was interesting for two reasons. First it’s what’s called a non-group comet, meaning it’s not part of any known family of comets. Most comets seen by SOHO belong to the Kreutz family – all of which broke off from a single giant comet many centuries ago.

The second reason it’s interesting is because the vast majority of comets that come close enough to the sun to be seen by SOHO do not survive the trip. Known as sungrazers, these comets usually evaporate in the intense sunlight. This comet made it to within 2.2 million miles of the sun’s surface – but survived the trip intact.


A description of sungrazer comets and where they come from. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Duberstein

“There’s a half-decent chance that ground observers might be able to detect it in the coming weeks,” said Karl Battams, a solar scientist at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C. “But it’s also possible that events during its trip around the sun will cause it to die fairly fast.”

Since launching in 1995, SOHO has become the number one comet finder of all time — this was comet discovery number 2,875. However, SOHO sees non-group comets like this only a few times a year.

Watch the video to see the comet fly around the sun. Toward the end of the video, as the comet begins to develop a tail, the sun releases an eruption of solar material, called a coronal mass ejection, or CME, to add something more to the scene.

SOHO Views New Comet

Image: ESA/NASA/SOHO/Hill

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