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Comets 101: A primer on the 'dirty snowballs' of space

By: Katherine Butler on Jan. 11, 2012, 10:35 a.m.
coronal mass ejection

Photo: NASA

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Can a comet damage the sun?

Experts believe that some 1,600 comets in our solar system swing very close to the sun in their travels. These sun-grazing comets are sometimes pulled into the star by its immense gravitational power. So what happens to the sun when this happens? Some experts used to believe there was a link between sun-grazing comets and coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, which are a release of solar plasma into space. Here we see a massive CME that appeared after a comet slammed into the sun. However, experts think this must be a coincidence. The relatively tiny mass of a comet could not impair an object as powerful and large as the sun. (You can see another image of this eruption here.)

This image was taken on Oct. 1, 2001, by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). SOHO, monitored by NASA and the European Space Agency, has been watching the sun since 1995. SOHO’s mission is to observe the sun from its deep core to the outer corona and the solar wind.