Enormous ‘Alien’ Comet Approaches the Sun

An enormous comet named 96P/Machholz 1 is racing towards the sun, leaving an icy trail in its wake. With a size of 3.7 miles (6 kilometers), this space iceball is believed to have originated from outside our solar system. The European Space Agency’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft is monitoring its journey as it approaches the sun inside the orbit of Mercury.

Karl Battams, an astrophysicist at the Naval Research Lab in Washington DC, says that 96P is a very atypical comet in terms of both composition and behavior, and its journey towards the sun may reveal more of its secrets. In 2008, an analysis of material shed by 150 comets found that 96P/Machholz 1 contained less than 1.5% of the expected levels of the chemical cyanogen and was low in carbon, leading astronomers to conclude that it could be from another solar system.

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Rare Green Comet to Make Closest Pass by Earth

David Machholz first discovered the comet in 1986 using a homemade cardboard telescope. Most comets that approach the sun tend to be smaller than 32 feet (10 meters) wide and get burned up. However, Machholz 1’s gigantic size of more than two-thirds the height of Mount Everest protects it from complete evaporation, and it has made five close passes around the sun since its discovery. Its closest approach to the sun will occur today (Jan 31) when it will be three times closer than Mercury.

Several theories suggest the origins of Machholz 1’s strange orbit. It could have been ejected from its original solar system by the gravity of a giant planet or had its trajectory bent towards our sun after an accidental rendezvous with Jupiter. Some scientists also believe that the comet may have formed in poorly understood regions of the solar system or had its cyanogen blasted off by repeated journeys around the sun.

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SOHO has spotted over 3,000 comets since its December 1995 launch, with its primary mission being to observe the sun for coronal mass ejections or solar flares that can cause geomagnetic storms on Earth. The most powerful of these storms can disrupt the planet’s magnetic field and send satellites tumbling to Earth, leading scientists to warn of the potential to cripple the internet.

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