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NASA Astronomers Witness Death Of Kreutz Comet As It Zoomed Toward The Sun At Incredible Speed

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Earlier this week, scientists working at NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) observed a comet as it zoomed toward the sun at a spectacular speed of 600 kilometers per second (373 miles per second).

It turned out that the comet is bound for death and is plunging to the sun, its cosmic death chamber, at an incredible speed.

Astronomer Karl Battams, who is part of SOHO's Sungrazer Comet Project, said that the comet was the fastest object they have seen in the solar system when it was destroyed by the sun.

The comet did not actually fall into the sun but its close proximity to the star resulted in its death as it was quickly dissipated by solar forces.

Comet deaths do not often require a direct collision with the sun. Just as in the case of this comet, comets often die when they pass in very close proximity to the sun, where they would disintegrate as a result of exposure to heat and gravitational forces.

"This comet didn't fall into the sun, but rather whipped around it - or at least, it would have if it had survived its journey," said Sarah Frazier, from the Goddard Space Flight Center of the U.S. space agency.

The comet is one of those cosmic objects known as sungrazer comets, which have highly elliptical orbits and pass very close to the sun at least at one point in their orbit.

Among the most known of sungrazer comets are the Kreutz sungrazers, which are fragments of a giant comet that broke up into smaller pieces when it got too close to the sun thousands of years ago. The comet is believed to have broken up into fragments after the ice that bound it together evaporated when the object got too close to the sun.

The particular comet the astronomers observed belongs to the Kreutz family of comets, which are characterized by an icy composition. Most of the sungrazers that SOHO observes are members of the Kreutz group.

The original comet is believed to have possibly broken down into as many as 20,000 fragments. German astronomer Heinrich Kreutz was the first to propose the idea that the smaller pieces were once part of one bigger comet.

Battams said that the comet, which was first spotted on Aug. 1, was one of the brightest Kreutz sungrazers that scientists at SOHO have seen over the past two decades. SOHO has been observing the sun's activities for more than 20 years.

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