Nr. 02-2000 - Paris, 8 February 2000

100 and counting : SOHO's score as the world's top comet finder



Calculations completed today confirm that a comet spotted by a Lithuanian astronomer on 4 February is a previously unknown object, making it the 100th comet discovered with the SOHO spacecraft. Launched four years ago as a project of international cooperation between the European Space Agency and NASA, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory has revolutionized the science of the Sun. It has also revealed an amazing number of kamikaze comets plunging into the solar atmosphere, which help to make SOHO the most prolific comet finder in the history of astronomy. But SOHO-100 is an ordinary comet, and so are two others that have appeared in the past few days.

Like nearly all of SOHO's discoveries, the 100th comet showed up in images from the LASCO instrument. This is a set of coronagraphs that view the space around the Sun out to 20 million kilometres, while blotting out the bright solar disk with masks. Developed for SOHO by a multinational team led by the US Naval Research Laboratory, LASCO watches for mass ejections from the Sun that threaten to disturb the Earth's space environment. The comet discoveries are a big bonus.

SOHO's experts spot many of the comets as soon as the images come in. But still pictures and movies from LASCO are freely available on the Internet to astronomers around the world, who can discover less obvious comets without leaving their desks. This was the case when Kazimieras Cernis of the Institute of Theoretical Physics and Astronomy in Vilnius, Lithuania, found SOHO-100.

"On 4 February I saw the comet as a small speck of light in the previous day's LASCO images," Cernis explained. "It had no visible tail, but it was too fuzzy to be an asteroid. By the time I had seen the object moving steadily across the sky in six successive images, I was convinced it was a comet and I sent the details to the SOHO scientists for verification."

The competition to find SOHO's 100th comet was keen. An amateur astronomer, Maik Meyer of Frauenstein, Germany, discovered SOHO-98 and 99. On 5 February, less than 24 hours after Cernis reported the candidate SOHO-100, Meyer found the candidate SOHO-101. On the same day and in the same LASCO images Douglas Biesecker, a member of the SOHO science team, spotted the candidate SOHO-102 travelling ahead of 101. Computations have now validated the orbits for all three candidates, and shown them to be bona fide comet discoveries.

Other amateur astronomers have used the LASCO images to find comets. In the summer of 1999 Terry Lovejoy in Australia found five, and since September 1999 an amateur in England, Jonathan Shanklin, has spotted three more.

"SOHO is a special chance for comet hunters," said Shanklin, who is director of the British Astronomical Association's comet section. "It allows amateurs to discover some of the smallest comets ever seen. Yet they link us to sightings of great comets going back more than 2000 years."

Nine of the comets found with LASCO, including SOHO-100, 101 and 102, passed the Sun at a safe distance. SOHO-49, which showed up in LASCO images in May 1998 and was designated as Comet 1998 J1, became visible to the naked eye in the southern hemisphere. But the great majority of SOHO's comets failed to survive very close encounters with the Sun.

Snowballs in hell

Of the first 100 SOHO comets, 92 vaporized in the solar atmosphere. Isaac Newton suggested 300 years ago that infalling comets might supply the Sun with fuel, but no one has ever tracked a comet that definitely hit the bright surface. Near misses are well known, and 100 years ago Heinrich Kreutz in Kiel, Germany, realized that several comets seen buzzing the Sun seemed to have a common origin, because they came from the same direction among the stars.

These comets are now called the Kreutz sungrazers, and the 92 vanishing SOHO comets belong to that class. They were not unexpected. Between 1979 and 1989 the P78-1 and SMM solar satellites spotted 16 comets closing with the Sun.

Life is perilous for a sungrazer. The mixture of ice and dust that makes up a comet's nucleus is heated like the proverbial snowball in hell, and can survive its visit to the Sun only if it is quite large. What's more, the very strong tidal effect of the Sun's gravity can tear the loosely glued nucleus apart. The disruption that created the many SOHO sungrazers was similar to the fate of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which went too close to Jupiter and broke up into many pieces that eventually fell into the massive planet in 1994.

"SOHO is seeing fragments from the gradual break-up of a great comet, perhaps the one that the Greek astronomer Ephorus saw in 372 BC," commented Brian Marsden of the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "Ephorus reported that the comet split in two. This fits with my calculation that two comets on similar orbits revisited the Sun around AD 1100. They split again and again, producing the sungrazer family, all still coming from the same direction."

The sungrazing comets slant in from the south, at 35 degrees to the plane where the Earth and the other planets orbit. As SOHO moves around the Sun, in step with the Earth, it sees the comets approaching the Sun from the east (left) in February and from the west (right) in August. In June and November the sungrazers seem to head straight up towards the Sun.

"The rate at which we've discovered comets with LASCO is beyond anything we ever expected," said Douglas Biesecker, the SOHO scientist personally responsible for the greatest number of discoveries, 45. "We've increased the number of known sungrazing comets by a factor of four. This implies that there could be as many as 20,000 fragments."

Their ancestor must have been enormous by cometary standards. Although SOHO's sungrazers are all too small to survive, other members of the family are still large enough to reappear, depleted but intact, after their close encounters with the Sun. Among them were the Great September Comet (1882) and Comet Ikeya-Seki (1965).

The history of splitting gives clues to the strength of comets, which will be of practical importance if ever a comet seems likely to hit the Earth. And the fragments seen as SOHO comets reveal the internal composition of comets, freshly exposed, in contrast to the much-altered surfaces of objects like Halley's Comet that have visited the Sun many times. LASCO reveals how much visible dust each comet releases. Gas produced by evaporating ice is detected by another instrument on SOHO, the Ultraviolet Coronagraph Spectrometer or UVCS, and enables scientists to measure the speed of the solar wind as it emerges from the Sun.

A comet spotted by its gas cloud

The count of SOHO's comet discoveries would be one fewer without a recent bonus from SWAN. This instrument's name unpacks into Solar Wind Anisotropies, and it was provided by the French Service d'Aéronomie and the Finnish Meteorological Institute. SWAN looks away from the Sun to survey atomic hydrogen in the Solar System, which glows with ultraviolet light and is altered by the solar wind. The instrument also sees large clouds of hydrogen surrounding comets, produced by the break-up of water molecules evaporating from the comets' ice.

In December 1999 the International Astronomical Union retrospectively credited SWAN and SOHO with finding Comet 1997 K2 in SWAN full-sky images from May to July 1997. It made number 93 on the SOHO scorecard. This comet remained outside the orbit of the Earth even at its closest approach to the Sun. Although it was presumably a small, faint comet, the gas cloud grew to a width of more than 4 million kilometres.

"The discovery was a surprise," said Teemu Mäkinen, a Finnish member of the SWAN group. "Our normal procedure is to observe hydrogen clouds of comets detected by other people. In that respect, SWAN on SOHO is the most important instrument now available for routinely measuring the release of water vapour from comets."

When Comet Wirtanen, the target for ESA's Rosetta mission (2003), made its most recent periodic visit to the Sun, it pumped out water vapour at a rate of 20,000 tons a day, according to the SWAN data. For the great Comet Hale-Bopp the rate reached 20 million tons a day and SWAN watched its hydrogen cloud grow to 70 million kilometres -- by far the largest object ever seen in the Solar System.

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