The comet (right)
approaches the Sun.
A recently discovered comet makes its closest approach to the Sun.
Moments later, it seems to be struck by a super-hot outburst of gas
from the star.
This spectacular image was
spotted on Tuesday by a spacecraft, the Solar and Heliospheric
Observatory (Soho). The joint
European Space Agency/Nasa satellite is
designed to give warnings of stormy space weather that might affect
the Earth. Soho has photographed hundreds of comets around the Sun but
this one, known as Neat, has only just been seen.
It has been hovering in
the evening sky for the past few weeks but is hardly visible without a
Ancient visitor: The
comet, which goes by the official name C/2002 V1, is
new to astronomers. The comet is putting on a spectacular show.
Calculations show it has passed through the inner Solar System once
before but this was 37,000 years ago. The comet is unusual in that it
is very large and very bright. In fact, it is the brightest comet ever
observed by one of Soho's instruments. Scientists are studying its
interaction with the solar wind - the hot, charged particles flowing
from the Sun.
They hope it could reveal new
information about what comets are made of. Dr Andrew Coates of the
Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London said: "It may
help us to understand better the effect that space weather has on comet
tails, and such events let us measure the speed of the solar wind near a
comet without sending a spacecraft there."