On this day in 1979, Comet Howard-Koomen-Michels slammed into surface of the sun at an estimated speed of 640,000 miles per hour, in the first documented collision between a comet and the Sun. Oddly, the event wasn’t detected until several years later, as this 1982 Popular Science article recounts. Astronomers from the Naval Research Laboratory discovered it while studying old satellite coronagraph images, which block out the Sun’s disc in eclipse-like fashion so that its atmosphere, or corona, can be observed.
The comet was one of a category that astronomers call “sungrazers,” because they generally follow orbits that pass very close to the Sun and skim it’s surface in near-miss trajectories. They seem to be rare: Only nine Sungrazers were observed between 1668 and 1970, though scientists think others probably went unnoticed. This particular sungrazer, however, came a little too close to the sun, and smashed into it. That’s the sort of confrontation that a comet is going to lose… badly.
In a photo taken two hours before the impact, the comet is seen streaking toward the Sun, leaving a tail of dust and gas more than three million miles long. The actual impact, unfortunately, was not captured, but in a picture taken 11 hours after the collision, a dust storm created by the disintegrated comet’s debris is visible millions of miles above the solar surface. The Popular Science article noted a mind-boggling fact: the collision released about 1,000 times as much energy as the U.S. used annually, circa 1982. If you’re an astronomical wonk, here’s a scientific paper on the comet’s path and tail.
And with that, here are the surprising science and technology stories of the day.
Google to create Facebook clone. Soon, we’ll all be social networking so much that our meat bodies will wither and be absorbed into our brains, and we’ll exist only as heads preserved in jars. Oh wait, that’s just Richard Nixon’s fate in “Futurama.”
Wheat DNA is sequenced. The food crop’s genome is five times bigger than that of a human being, so this was no easy feat. It may eventually help scientists figure out new ways to fight famine.