Stunning images capture the moment a green comet's tail is blasted away by the sun

Footage of the green comet C/2022 E3's tail being snipped off by a blast of solar energy called a coronal mass ejection.
Black and white footage of the green comet C/2022 E3's tail being snipped off by a blast of solar energy called a coronal mass ejection. (Image credit: Michael Jaeger)

A rare green comet passing through our solar system for the first time in 50,000 years received a warm welcome from the sun this week... perhaps too warm.

Images captured by Michael Jäger (opens in new tab), an amateur astronomer based in Austria, reveal a huge spike of gas disconnecting from the comet's tail and drifting off on the solar wind. This impromptu tail reduction was almost certainly caused by an explosion of super-charged solar particles called a coronal mass ejection (CME), according to Spaceweather.com (opens in new tab).

CMEs are enormous blobs of fast-moving plasma that can blast out of the sun's surface at more than 36 million degrees Fahrenheit (20 million degrees Celsius). These blobs are commonly released when there are a lot of sunspots — large, dark-looking regions that form in the sun’s lower atmosphere — as there are now. Sunspots and CMEs appear more frequently when the sun nears the peak of its 11-year cycle of activity, which is currently predicted for 2025.

When a CME passes directly over Earth, it can damage satellites, trigger auroras and cause widespread electrical disturbances. And when a CME passes over a nearby comet, the fast-moving solar particles can pinch that comet's tail right off and send it soaring away. NASA witnessed the phenomenon, known as a disconnection event, in 2007, when the STEREO A spacecraft captured this awesome footage (opens in new tab).

Several CMEs blasted out of the sun this week, and it seems likely that one of them snipped the green comet's tail, according to Spaceweather.com. That's bad timing for the comet, which had spent the previous 50,000 years outside our solar system before making a close approach to the sun on Jan. 12.

Fortunately, a comet's tail is made predominantly of gas, which streams off the comet's icy body as ultraviolet solar radiation passes over it. So the sun will help to quickly replace the very tail that it snipped off as the comet continues to hang around the inner solar system.

Stargazers will soon have their best chance to view the comet, named C/2022 E3 (ZTF). The comet will make its closest approach to Earth on Feb. 1, passing within about 26 million miles (42 million kilometers) of our planet. Viewers in non-light-polluted areas may be able to see the comet without a telescope or binoculars.

But the comet will not be around for long: Shortly after leaving Earth's skies, the comet will zoom out of our solar system again, possibly never to return.

Brandon Specktor
Editor

Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.

  • Rod
    Awkward sentence structure makes it sound like no green comets have been seen in the Solar System for 50,000 years.
    Reply