SOHO orbiting observatory dubbed history's 'most successful comet-hunter'
Tail of Christmas Comet (lower left) spotted by SOHO
Spacecraft surpasses 100, and counting
GREENBELT, Maryland -- An orbiting observatory studying the Sun has found more than 100 comets in just four years of
operation, making it by far the most successful comet-hunter
in history, scientists announced this week.
A cooperative project between NASA and the European Space
Agency, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) has revealed many "suicidal" comets plunging into
the Sun, and has shed light on a comet mystery that dates back to
| COMET CRAZE|
"SOHO is seeing fragments from the gradual breakup of a great
comet, perhaps the one that the Greek astronomer Ephorus saw
in 372 BC," said Dr. Brian Marsden of the Center for
Astrophysics in Cambridge, Maryland, in a NASA statement.
Counting 100 and beyond
SOHO hit the 100 mark with the help of a Lithuanian observer, who spotted a comet in the observer's data on February 4. The European Space Agency (ESA) says it completed calculations Tuesday that confirm the comet is a "previously
"I saw the comet as a small speck of light," Kazimieras
Cernis said in an ESA statement. "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."
The 101st and 102nd comets have also been confirmed, according to the ESA. An amateur astronomer in Germany, Maik Meyer spotted 101. Dr. Douglas Biesecker of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
in Greenbelt, Maryland identified 102. A member of the SOHO team, Biesecker is
responsible for the most discoveries, 45.
How it works
Scientists have found most of the comets by poring over images from an instrument called a Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph. Known as LASCO, it functions like a giant visor, blocking out the Sun's disc so that scientists can examine an area of 12.5 million miles (20 million kilometers) around the Sun.
The SOHO Web site features stills and movies of the images, allowing even amateur astronomers to participate in the search. In England, Jonathan Shanklin discovered three comets.
"SOHO is a special chance for comet hunters," said Shanklin,
the director of the British Astronomical Association's comet
section, in an ESA statement. "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 2,000 years."
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January 8, 1999
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January 4, 1999
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August 4, 1998
NASA locates lost SOHO satellite
July 27, 1998
Hot Shots from SOHO
SOHO: The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory
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