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The case of the Sun-diving asteroid that thinks it's a comet

4 Sep 2019, 13:00 UTC
The case of the Sun-diving asteroid that thinks it's a comet ESA/NASA SOHO and Karl Battams

In the year 1999 — on September 4, so 20 years ago today — citizen scientists with the NASA funded Sungrazer Project discovered a new comet that, at the time, was dive-bombing the Sun. Screaming past the Sun's surface by less than 8 million kilometers, it appeared in the field of view of the NASA/ESA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), as many sun-diving comets do. Some get so close to the Sun they "burn up," turning to vapor under the relentlessly pounding heat of the Sun from that close.

But this new object — now called 322P/SOHO — was unusual in that it was the first object discovered in SOHO images that was periodic, meaning it was on an elliptical orbit that would regularly bring it back to such a close distance to the Sun. It's a tough bugger: Instead of just fizzling away, it actually survives its encounters.

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