Sungrazing Comets 101

This article comes to us from Prafull Sharma, a student and amateur astronomer based in Delhi, India. He recently discovered a new comet, SOHO 2333, which is a fragment of 96P/Machholz. In addition to the comet, Sharma has discovered 13 asteroids, 87 supernovas, and 55 variable stars. He uses a SkyMaster 25x70 binocular to aid him in his work. Celestron is thrilled to feature Prafull's articles here on our blog!

Sungrazing comets are comets that pass very close to the Sun and nearly end their life on the surface of the Sun. Since comets are made up of ice and dust, they evaporate or undergo fragmentation as they approach the Sun during their perihelion passage. Sungrazer comets can be categorized according to their trajectory into the Kreutz group, Meyer group, Kratch group, and Marsden group. Sungrazer comets seem to be fragments of a big comet viewed by Aristotle and Ephorus in 371 BC.

CometSungrazing comet, courtesy NASA/SOHO.

About 83% of the sungrazing comets are Kreutz comets while the rest 17% belong to the rest of the groups. The Marsden and Kracht groups both appear to be related to Comet 96P/Machholz. These comets have also been linked to several meteor streams, including the Daytime Arietids, the Delta Aquariids, and the Quadrantids. Linked comet orbits suggest that both Marsden and Kracht groups have a small period, on the order of five years, but the Meyer group may have intermediate- or long-period orbits.

In 1979, C/1979 Q1 (SOLWIND) was the first sungrazer to be spotted by US satellite P78-1, in coronographs taken on 30 and 31 Aug 1979. But since the launch of SOHO satellite in 1995, many small sungrazers have been discovered. 

Comet LovejoyComet Lovejoy in LASCO C3, courtesy: NASA/SOHO.

The Great Comets of 1843 and 1882, Comet Ikeya–Seki in 1965 and C/2011 W3 (Lovejoy) in 2011 were all fragments of the original comet. Each of these three was briefly bright enough to be visible in the daytime sky, next to the Sun, outshining even the full moon. C/2011 W3 (Lovejoy) is the largest sungrazing comet discovered using an Earth based telescope.

-Prafull Sharma
Celestron Contributing Blogger