While Chile and Argentina witnessed the total solar eclipse on December 14, without the observers knowing it, a small spot flew past the sun, a newly discovered comet.
This comet was first seen in satellite data by Thai amateur astronomer Worachate Boonplod at the Sungrazer Project funded by the POT, a citizen science project that invites anyone to search and discover new comets in images from NASA and ESA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO).
Boonplod discovered the comet on December 13, the day before the eclipse. He knew the eclipse was coming and was eager to see if his new comet discovery might show up in the Sun’s outer atmosphere as a small blob in eclipse photographs, NASA reports.
The comet, named C / 2020 X3 (SOHO) by the Minor Planet Center, is a ‘Kreutz’ solar scraper. This family of comets originated from a large parent comet that broke into smaller fragments over a thousand years ago and continues to orbit the Sun today.
Comets skimming the Kreutz sun are most frequently found in SOHO images. SOHO’s camera works by mimicking total solar eclipses: A solid masking disk blocks blinding light from the Sun, revealing dimmer features in its outer atmosphere and other celestial objects like comets. To date, s4,108 comets have been discovered in SOHO imagesThis comet being the 3,524th solar trace of Kreutz discovered.
At around the time the eclipse image was taken, the comet was traveling at approximately 700,000 kilometers per hour, about 4 million kilometers from the surface of the Sun. The comet was about 17 meters in diameter, about the length of a semi-trailer. It then disintegrated into dust particles due to intense solar radiation, a few hours before reaching its closest point to the Sun.