Inside the Solar System: Comet C/2011 N3

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Inside the Solar System: Comet C/2011 N3
PSC 103 - Astronomy
Summer 2012

According to an article written in early January Scientific American (Matson, 2012), on July 6th, for the first time ever, a sun-watching spacecraft has traced a comet’s route directly into the sun. The magazine boasts this as the “Solar Swan Song” (Matson, 2012) and compares this comet’s demise to dramatic exits in the movie Dr. Strangelove. Discovered by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, otherwise known as SOHO, the comet, called C/2011 N3 (SOHO), was observed by the spacecraft traveling at 600 kilometers per second.

Although the comet never actually made it to the sun as it burst into flames in the solar atmosphere, astronomers were able to make observations of the comet during the final stages of flight. “The observations of C/2011 N3 as it broke apart allowed the researchers to estimate the comet’s mass and the size of the nucleus” (Matson, 2012, para. 3). The researchers were able to estimate that the comet “shed as much as 60 million kilograms of material in its plunge” (Matson, 2012) which equates to the approximate mass of the Titanic.

With the ability to conduct this and future research, astronomers hope to gain more insights on comet’s origins thus solving another crucial piece of the puzzle making up the universe. Additionally, this type of research ties directly into the study of Astronomy as it shows a live example of how knowledge of how mass and nucleus size relate and therefore can assist in understanding the make-up of the solar system. Although, SOHO discovered over 2,000 other comets near the sun, this is the first one that was able to provide a wide range of data about solar system material. Astronomers are enthusiastic about what conclusions can be made from seeing a comet destruct completely in the solar atmosphere.

Matson, John.
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