NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) spotted Comet 96P entering its field of view, the US space agency has said in a statement. NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) misson captured the comet entering the lower right corner of its view on October 25, before leaving on October 30, a statement said on Friday. Simulatneously, NASA’s Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory (Stereo) mission also captured Comet 96P from the opposite side of Earth’s orbit, between October 26-28. The comet entered the bottom of Stereo’s view and crossed it diagonally before leaving on October 28. Comet 96P, also known as Machholz, after amateur astronomer Dan Machholz, who discovered it in 1986, completes an orbit around the Sun every 5.24 years. It makes its closest approach to the Sun at a toasty 11 million miles — a very close distance for a comet. Comet 96P has an unusual composition and is the parent of two separate comet groups. It is extremely rare for comets to be seen simultaneously from two different locations in space, and these are the most comprehensive parallel observations of comet 96P yet.
The SOHO mission had previously spotted comet 96P in 1996, 2002, 2007 and 2012, making it the spacecraft’s “most frequent cometary visitor”. When comet 96P appeared in SOHO’s view in 2012, astronomers discovered two tiny comet fragments some distance ahead of the main body, signalling the comet was actively changing. This time they have detected a third fragment — another breadcrumb in the trail that indicates the comet is still evolving, the report said. The combined observations will be used to learn more about the comet’s composition, as well as its interaction with the solar wind, the constant flow of charged particles from the Sun, the report said.