Friday, June 7, 2013

Suicidal Comets Make Good Solar Probes, Scientists Say

Visualization of the coronal magnetic field through which Comet Lovejoy passed in December 2011. The magenta arc indicates Lovejoy's path, which traversed both open (orange) and closed (blue) magnetic field lines.  


Scientists can use daredevil comets to probe regions of the sun's complex, hellishly hot atmosphere that are off-limits to spacecraft, a new study reports.

The sun's magnetic field caused the tail of Comet Lovejoy to wiggle in strange ways during the icy wanderer's suicidal plunge through the solar atmosphere in December 2011, researchers have found, suggesting that the close approaches of such "sungrazer comets" can help astronomers better understand Earth's star.

"I liken Lovejoy and these other comets to sort of naturally occurring celestial explorers, in that they're going there for us and, in a way, returning data that we can use in a complementary way," said study lead author Cooper Downs of Predictive Science Inc. in San Diego. [Photos of Comet Lovejoy's Dive Through Sun]

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