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In early January, 2002, periodic comet 96P/Machholz put on a dazzling show as it swung by the Sun. On Jan. 8th, the comet was only 0.12 AU from our star -- even closer to the Sun than Mercury. During the fiery encounter sunlight warmed and melted part of the comet's icy nucleus; dusty vapors formed a long tail.
Although human eyes couldn't see the encounter, coronagraphs on board the orbiting Solar and Heliospheric Observatory could. A coronagraph is a device that blocks the Sun's glare behind an opaque disk. These coronagraph movies show the Sun, Venus (a bright point to the lower right of the Sun), and the comet from Jan. 7th to 10th: small (0.32 MB), medium (0.85 MB), large (1.6 MB).
A remarkable scene, pictured above, unfolded on January 8th when a coronal mass ejection (CME) billowed away from the Sun just as comet 96P/Machholz reached perihelion. Although the CME appears to envelop the comet, it did not. Unlike many Sun-approaching comets, notably the "Kreutz sungrazers," 96P/Machholz survived its fiery experience and will return again in 2007. [SOHO also saw the comet in Oct. 1996] [3D orbit]