SOHO's private view of a sunbathing comet

Press Release From: European Space Agency
Posted: Wednesday, January 9, 2002

You could see it easily with your unaided eye (but don't try!) if only Comet Machholz 1 were not so very close to the Sun. This unusual comet, reputed to flare up a lot, is today sweltering only 18 million kilometres from the Sun. This is its closest approach on an orbit that brings it back to the solar vicinity every 63 months. The best and perhaps the only view of it at this time comes from the ESA-NASA sunwatching spacecraft SOHO.

"It's great to see Comet Machholz 1 doing well in these SOHO images,' says Don Machholz, who discovered it in 1986, as an amateur observing in California. "I'm pleased to join you for these next few days as the comet crosses the field."

The LASCO coronagraph on SOHO, designed for seeing outbursts from the Sun, uses a mask to block the bright rays from the visible surface. It monitors a large volume of surrounding space, and as a result it became the most prolific discoverer of comets in the history of astronomy. Most of them are small sungrazer comets that burn up completely in the Sun's hot atmosphere.

Seen today with an impressive tail, Machholz 1 is a more robust, but puzzling comet. No one is sure of the reason for its frequent outbursts. Whether its icy nucleus is 1 kilometre or 10 kilometres wide is also uncertain.

"Experts will look closely at the LASCO images, and at other images from our ultraviolet coronagraph UVCS as well," says Paal Brekke, ESA's deputy project scientist for SOHO. "We already know it's unusually bright in the ultraviolet. Maybe we'll find out why Machholz 1 is idiosyncratic."

SOHO is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA. The spacecraft was built in Europe for ESA and equipped with instruments by teams of scientists in Europe and the USA. NASA launched SOHO in December 1995, and in 1998 ESA and NASA decided to extend its highly successful operations until 2003.


* Movie of Comet Machholtz 1 * More about this comet * More about SOHO


[Image 1: ooid=29212] Comet Machholz 1 seen close to the Sun by SOHO on 8 January 2002. The mask in the LASCO coronagraph hides the bright Sun, the size of which is shown by the inner ring.

[Image 2: ooid=29214] SOHO also saw Comet Machholz 1 at its closest to the Sun in 1996, although not as plainly as in 2002.

These images of Comet Machholz 1 were obtained by SOHO on 14 and 15 October 1996. Both were obtained by the Large Angle and Spectrometric COronagraph (LASCO, C3). The top image was obtained on the 14th at 13:54:06 UT. The bottom image was obtained on the 15th at 00:30:05 UT. The images were processed by Gary W. Kronk from the FTS images. The contrast of the images was increased to enhance the tail. Subsequently the Sun's corona is more overexposed than in the original images.

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