Comet 96P/Machholz making its sixth passage through SOHO/LASCO C3 field of view

A 6.4 km (4 miles) wide Comet 96P/Machholz has begun its sixth passage through the field view of SOHO/LASCO C3 on January 29, 2023.

The object is still making its move and has passed the perihelion today.

“96P is a very atypical comet, both in composition and in behavior, so we never know exactly what we might see,” said Dr. Karl Battams, the Principal Investigator of SOHO/LASCO & Sungrazer Projects

“Accordingly, we’re running a special observing program with SOHO to maximize the science return, so the normal flow of public coronagraph data will be slowed for a few days (to six images/hour). Hopefully we can get some beautiful science out of this and share with everyone as soon as we can.”

“So far, four tiny fragments of the comet have been reported by citizen scientists,” Battams said.

“We’ve seen 96P fragments in the past, but only 1 or 2 at a time. And the timing of these fragments doesn’t match previous fragments, so maybe these are new fragments, or fragments of fragments, or…”

“Ordinarily you’d hope to track them from the ground and get reliable orbit determinations, but 96P is a tricky one, and its fragments have never been ground-observed. Plus these little chunks might have really crazy non-gravitational forces that are pushing them in weird ways.”

“Non-gravitational forces means that the outgassing (sublimating) of the comet surface is so strong that it acts like a mini jet engine and slowly pushes the comet out of an otherwise ‘predictable'”‘ (gravitational) orbit. Tiny forces over long periods can do crazy things to orbits!”

Featured image: ESA/NASA SOHO LASCO C3

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