In a movie captured by a NASA satellite today, a comet is seen hurtling toward the sun. And just as the streaking icy object is making its final death plunge, the sun lets loose with an explosion of many millions of tons of material from its outer atmosphere.
To the casual eye, it might appear that the comet crashed into the sun, triggering the coronal mass ejection, or CME. That’s exactly what I thought when I watched the movie.
To check it out for yourself, first have a look at the screenshot at the top of this page. Note the starting position of the comet at lower right. (Also note that the bright disk of the sun is blacked out so details won’t be overshadowed.)
Now, click on the image to watch the movie, which consists of images captured by NASA’s SOHO spacecraft starting yesterday (UTC) and continuing into today.
What do you see?
The comet plunges toward the sun, and just when it disappears at the black disk, a bright eruption of material takes place.
Cause and effect, right?
Well, I knew that looks could be deceiving. So I used Twitter to ask some solar experts whether the comet had crashed into the sun, causing a CME. Below is the response I got from the Solar Physics Department of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, home of a comet program: