Awesome.

The Moon, Space Shuttle Atlantis, an aurora plus Kibo, all in one breathtaking scene (Soichi Noguchi)

The instant I saw this photograph I realized I was seeing something so beautiful, I’d have a hard job writing something to accompany it.

Coming straight from the Twitter feed of Soichi Noguchi, Japanese astronaut and social-media-in-space-photography-guru, this single photograph has captured the moon, an aurora hanging above the Earth’s limb, a docked space shuttle Atlantis and the International Space Station’s Kibo module (plus a bonus robotic arm and solar panel).

This picture is awesome on so many levels. And to be honest, this should be the photograph of Atlantis’ final mission. It encapsulates so much; a testament to what mankind is capable of and a tribute to the men and women who are currently in space, risking their lives for the advancement of our race.

There’s not much else to say, except: wow.

About these ads

Black Holes, Aurorae and the Event Horizon Telescope

My impression as to how a black hole 'aurora' might look like near an event horizon (Ian O'Neill/Discovery News)

Usually, aurorae happen when the solar wind blasts the Earth’s atmosphere. However, black holes may also have a shot at producing their very own northern lights. What’s more, we might even be able to observe this light display in the future.

Accretion Disks and Magnetic Fields

Simulating a rapidly spinning black hole, two researchers from Japan modeled an accretion disk spinning with it.

Inside this disk would be superheated plasma and as it rotates it might act like a dynamo, charged particles generating a magnetic field looping through the disk. But this magnetic field wont stay confined to the disk for long. Due to inertial effects, the magnetic field would be dragged into the event horizon, causing the magnetic fieldlines to ‘attach’ themselves to the black hole.

Assuming the accretion disk continues to generate a continuous magnetic field, a global black hole ‘magnetosphere’ would result.

A diagram of the black hole's magnetosphere (Takahashi and Takahashi, 2010)

A Plasma Hosepipe

As you’ve probably seen in the striking imagery coming from the high-definition movies being produced by the Solar Dynamics Observatory, magnetic fieldlines close to the solar surface can fill with solar plasma, creating bright coronal loops. This hot plasma fills the loops, feeding around the magnetic field like a hosepipe filling with water.

The same principal would apply to the black hole’s magnetosphere: the looped magnetic field feeding from the accretion disk to the event horizon filling with plasma as it is sucked out of the disk (by the black hole’s dominating gravitational field).

As you’d expect, the plasma will fall into the black hole at relativistic speeds, converted into pure energy, blasting with intense radiation. However, the Japanese researchers discovered something else that may happen just before the plasma is destroyed by the black hole: it will generate a shock.

As predicted by the model, this shock will form when the plasma exceeds the local Alfven speed. For want of a better analogy, this is like a supersonic jet creating a sonic boom. But in the plasma environment, as the plasma flow hits the shock front, it will rapidly decelerate, dumping energy before continuing to rain down on the event horizon. This energy dump will be converted into heat and radiation.

This fascinating study even goes so far as predicting the configuration of the black hole magnetosphere, indicating that the radiation generated by the shock would form two halos sitting above the north and south ‘poles’ of the black hole. From a distance, these halos would look like aurorae.

Very Large Baseline Interferometry

So there you have it. From a spinning black hole’s accretion disk to shocked plasma, a black hole can have an aurora. The black hole aurora, however, would be generated by shocked plasma, not plasma hitting atmospheric gases (as is the case on Earth).

This all sounds like a fun theoretical idea, but it may also have a practical application in the not-so-distant future.

Last year, I wrote “The Event Horizon Telescope: Are We Close to Imaging a Black Hole?” which investigated the efforts under way in the field of very large baseline interferometry (or “VLBI”) to directly observe the supermassive black hole (Sagittarius A*) living in the center of our galaxy.

In a paper written by Vincent Fish and Sheperd Doeleman at the MIT Haystack Observatory, results from a simulation of several radio telescopes as part of an international VLBI campaign were detailed. The upshot was that the more radio antennae involved in such a campaign, the better the resolution of the observations of the ‘shadow’ of the black hole’s event horizon.

If the black hole’s event horizon could be observed by a VLBI campaign, could its glowing aurorae also be spotted? Possibly.

For more, check out my Discovery News article: “Can a Black Hole Have an ‘Aurora’?” and my Astroengine.com article: “The Event Horizon Telescope: Are We Close to Imaging a Black Hole?

Was Voyager 2 Hijacked by Aliens? No.

The Voyager 2 spacecraft has been speeding through the Solar System since 1977 and it’s seen a lot. Besides scooting past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, the probe is now passing through the very limit of the heliosphere (called the heliopause) where it has begun to detect a magnetic field beyond the Solar System. The fact we have man-made objects exiting our star system is something that makes me goosebumpily.

For some perspective, Voyager 2 is so far away from Earth that it takes nearly 13 hours for commands sent from Earth to reach the probe.

After decades of travel, the NASA spacecraft continues to relay data back to us, making it one of the most profound and exciting space missions ever launched. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the aging explorer recently experienced a glitch and the data received by NASA was rather garbled.

Naturally, the conspiracy theorists were out in force quickly pointing their sticky fingers at a possible encounter of the 3rd kind. How these ‘aliens’ found the probe in the first place and reprogrammed the transmission for it to appear corrupt Earth-side is beyond me, but according to an ‘expert’ in Germany, aliens (with an aptitude for reprogramming 30 year old Earth hardware, presumably) were obviously to blame.

One of the alien implication articles came from yet another classic ‘science’ post thrown together by the UK’s Telegraph where they decided to take the word of a UFO expert (obviously a viable source) without any kind of counter-argument from a real expert of real science. (But this is the same publication that brought us other classics such as the skull on Mars and the Doomsday Turkey, so it’s not too surprising.)

As I discussed in a recent CRI English radio debate with Beyond Beijing hosts Chris Gelken and Xu Qinduo, the Voyager-alien implication is beyond funny; an entertaining sideline to poke fun at while NASA worked out what actually went wrong. But the big difference was that Chris and Xu had invited Seth Shostak (from the SETI Institute) and Douglas C. Lin (from the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University) to join the fun. No UFO expert in sight, so the discussion was biased toward science and logic, not crazy talk.

(It was an awesome show by the way, and you can check out the recording via my Discovery News article.)

So what did happen to Voyager 2? It turns out that aliens are not required to answer this cosmic mystery.

On Tuesday, NASA announced that Voyager 2 had flipped one of its bits of memory the wrong way. “A value in a single memory location was changed from a 0 to a 1,” said JPL’s Veronia McGregor.

This glitch was thought to occur in the flight data system, which formats information for transmission to Earth. Should something go wonky in its memory allocation, the stuff it transmits can be turned into gibberish.

Although it isn’t known how this single bit was flipped (and we may never know, as Voyager 2 is an awful long way from home), it sounds very much like a cosmic ray event interfering with the onboard electronics. As cosmic rays are highly energetic charged particles, they can penetrate deep into computer systems, causing an error in calculations.

And this situation isn’t without precedent either. Recently, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) was hit by a cosmic ray event, causing the onboard computer to switch to “safe mode.” Also, Voyager 2 is beginning to exit the Sun’s outermost sphere of influence, where turbulence and confused magnetic fields rule. If I had to guess, I’d say — statistically-speaking — the probe might have a greater chance of being hit by the most energetic cosmic rays from deep space.

Just because something “mysterious” happens in space doesn’t mean aliens, the Illuminati or some half-baked doomsday phenomenon caused it. Before jumping to conclusions it would be nice if certain newspapers and UFO experts alike could look at the most likely explanation before pulling the alien card.

Alas, I suspect that some things will never change.

Life on Mars? Only in The Sun.

In its haste to become the first newspaper to print the “NASA: Evidence of Life on Mars” headline, the UK’s Sun website caused a stir last week. Not only was this headline incorrect, it was a wee bit irresponsible.

For starters, no evidence for life has been found on the Red Planet. Second, NASA has not proclaimed such a discovery. In fact, The Sun riled the U.S. space agency so much, this headline prompted NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown to issue the following statement:

“This headline is extremely misleading. This makes it sound like we announced that we found life on Mars, and that is absolutely, positively false.”

So where did it all go so wrong?

This story stems from an astrobiology conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the search for alien life. At this conference, findings by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity were reviewed. One of these findings was the tantalizing discovery of sulfates by the rover in 2004. Where there’s sulfates, water once existed. Where there’s water, life might have existed.

In an exciting twist to this discovery, scientists studying sulfate deposits on Earth (known as gypsum) were asked by scientists in the Mars Program to investigate terrestrial gypsum deposits more closely. Up until now, it was thought that gypsum contained no fossils, but on closer inspection it turns out that ancient gypsum deposits from the Mediterranean Sea (dated to about 6 million years old — when the sea was actually dry) are stuffed full of microscopic fossils of algae and phytoplanktons.

So, on Mars we have sulfates. On Earth we have sulfates (gypsum) full of fossils of aquatic microscopic life. If we know the terrestrial deposits of gypsum contain fossils of basic life forms, perhaps sulfate deposits on Mars would be a good place to start looking for basic ancient extraterrestrial life.

Of course, for the tabloid newspaper, these Martian sulfate deposits became “pond scum” and therefore “evidence” for life on Mars.

In actuality, the text of The Sun article wasn’t that misleading and actually did a good job of reporting the science (apart from the “pond scum” bit). Unfortunately, the title of the article let the rest of the article down, ultimately undermining the journalists’ work.

But, coming from the same publication that printed the silly “Pictures show life on Mars” article from 2008, the “Evidence for life on Mars” headline is pretty tame.

Now, time for the same news with a more appropriate headline by Irene Klotz on Discovery News: “Earth Fossil Find May Lead to Martian Discoveries

Thanks to Astroengine.com reader Judy Mason for inspiring this post.

Gecksteroids! Asteroids and Geckos May Share Common Force

The asteroid Itokawa (as imaged by the Japanese Hayabusa probe) and a gecko tattoo. Bear with me, it'll make sense soon (JAXA)

The asteroid Itokawa (as imaged by the Japanese Hayabusa probe) and a gecko tattoo. Bear with me, it'll make sense soon (JAXA)

What do asteroids and geckos have in common? Not a lot, as you’d expect, but they may share a common force.

This rather strange notion comes from research being done by a team of University of Colorado scientists who have been studying the odd nature of the asteroid Itokawa. When the Japanese Hayabusa mission visited the space rock in 2005 (Hayabusa’s sample return capsule is set to return to Earth on June 13th by the way), it noticed the asteroid was composed of smaller bits of rubble, rather than one solid chunk. Although this isn’t a surprise in itself — indeed, many asteroids are believed to be floating “rubble piles” — the rate of spin of the asteroid posed a problem.

Itokawa spins rather fast and if only the force of gravity was keeping the lumps of rock together, they would have been flung out into space long ago. In short, the asteroid shouldn’t exist.

Although plenty of theories have been bandied around, one idea seems to stick.

More commonly found as a force that holds molecules together, the van der Waals force may bind the individual components of the asteroid together, acting against the centripetal force caused by its spin.

But where do the geckos come in?

Geckos are highly skilled in the “climbing up walls” department, and it’s the van der Waals force that makes this happen. Should the body of a gecko be tilted in such a way against a perfectly smooth, “impossible” to climb surface, the gravity acting on the little creature will trigger the force into action. Therefore geckos have evolved to exploit the practical application of van der Waals.

This has some rather interesting ramifications for asteroid evolution too. During early stages of asteroid formation, the larger fragments of rock are flung off; the centripetal force exceeds that of gravity. In the latter stages of development, only the smallest rocks remain behind, their mass small enough to allow van der Waals forces to overcome the spin.

So, there you have it, asteroids do have something in common with geckos. It seems only right to call these space rubble piles “Gecksteroids.”

Thanks to my Discovery News colleague Jennifer Ouellette for drawing the comparison between asteroids and geckos!

Source: Discovery News, arXiv.org

Indonesia ‘Meteorite’ Wiped Out a House… Or Not.

A week after Israel played host to the amazing burning ‘meteorite’, another report is coming in about a ‘meteorite’ strike in East Jakarta, Indonesia. (Note the use of the famous ‘skeptical quotes’.)

On Thursday, a falling object crashed through the roof of a house causing moderate damage. There was also light damage to two adjoining properties. Fortunately, there are no reported injuries.

According to a report in the Jakarta Globe, there was a “blast” that resulted from the impact and there was a deep crater in the floor of the house. After creating the impact crater in the floor, the ‘falling object’ bounced.

I suspect the object impacted at high velocity, hit the floor, bounced back and hit the ceiling, then fell back down,” said a researcher from the Indonesian National Aeronautics and Space Agency (Lapan). “It’s extremely difficult to recover the fragments, what with the rubble and broken glass, and it being so dark in here.”

The article also states that there was evidence for a residual heat footprint and melted items around the crater. Apparently, these facts all point to evidence that a meteorite, or some man-made space junk, was involved.

Although the details are sketchy, there are a few points that concern me about this meteorite report:

First, if this ‘meteorite’ was large enough to create a “deep” crater (there’s no information about the crater’s approximate size), that would suggest it was a hyper-velocity impact. Not only is this kind of impact very rare, I doubt there would be anything left of the building.

Unless “moderate damage” means “there is no house left,” I strongly doubt the crater was caused by a meteorite.

Secondly, according to the Lapan scientist, the space rock “bounced.” While this is possible — take the Virginia meteorite that crashed through the roof of a doctors office, bouncing off the floor of an examination room, for example — if its impact was energetic enough to excavate a sizable crater (and produce a “blast”), then I doubt much of the meteorite would be left to “bounce.” It would have disintegrated, got lodged deep in the bottom of the crater, or not produced a crater at all.

Thirdly, the article states: “the residual heat footprint and melted items pointed to a meteorite.” As I’ve said before, meteorites are usually cold when they make landfall (assuming they are small enough to be slowed by our atmosphere), so this residual heat did not come from the meteorite. If the meteorite was large enough to slam into the house at hyper-velocity speeds, or hit a gas canister, then perhaps there might be some “residual heat.” But in this case, I strongly doubt there would be any house left.

Fourthly, according to Evan Irawan Akbar, from the Bosscha Observatory in Lembang, this event has occurred shortly after the Lyrid meteor shower which ended on Monday. So he rules out any connection. Which is fortunate, as this meteor shower is caused by the Earth passing through a harmless dust tail created by the periodic Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher.

But then he drops this clanger: “It could, however, be part of the Eta Aquariid meteor shower, which peaks on May 7 and 8.”

The Eta Aquariid meteor shower is caused by dust trail from Halley’s Comet… last time I checked, dust grains from comets have never been linked with house-killing chunks of rock. Comets are made from ice and dust, stuff that easily burns up when hitting our atmosphere. These are meteor showers, not meteorite showers.

The extent of the damaged caused is also a little strange. From the article: “It blasted a hole in the second floor of the house, sending furniture falling to the first floor, and tore big holes in the walls.” Doesn’t that sound like an explosion?

Apparently the police have ruled out speculation that this was a gas canister explosion and although there is “no conclusive proof the damage was caused by a meteorite, it was the most likely explanation.”

Alas, meteorite impacts aren’t likely explanations, terrestrial explanations are the most “likely.” The fact that an Indonesian counter-terrorism squad has been dispatched to the area to look for traces of explosives suggest the authorities aren’t placing all their bets on this being a meteorite impact either.

Thanks to @antonwilliam for the tip!

Source: Jakarta Globe

Israel ‘Meteorite’ Isn’t a Meteorite [UPDATE]

That's no space rock: The Israeli 'meteorite' that never was (Ilan Lilush, Tel Aviv Police).

That's no space rock: The Israeli 'meteorite' that never was (Ilan Lilush, Tel Aviv Police).

UPDATE (April 25): The unidentified combustible object has been identified as being “man made” rather than anything cosmic in origin.

“It is definitely not a meteor and not a different natural substance – somebody created it, and it did not appear from outer space,” said Ittai Gavrieli of the Geological Survey of Israel when reporting after analysis of the ‘meteorite.’

Also, it looks like my original assertion that this resembled an incendiary device wasn’t far off. This object contained high quantities of phosphorus, a chemical commonly used in incendiary weapons.

“The object had high concentrations of phosphorus, which is naturally ignited when it comes in contact with air and with inflammatory material,” Gavrieli added.

However, I still stand by my theory that the Moonpeople are behind it.

(Once again, thanks Avi for keeping me in the loop of these meteorite misadventures!)

[Original post below]

ORIGINAL POST: It has all the hallmarks of being a meteorite: It’s on fire! There’s smoke! Hell, even the BBC is reporting about it!

That’s right, isn’t it? When a chunk of rock flies through the Earth’s atmosphere it burns bright, sometimes exploding during re-entry, scattering the ground like a hellish incendiary device? Scary stuff if you’re standing underneath the cosmic fireball.

It seems that some surfers on the beach near the town of Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv, Israel had a lucky escape when an unidentified-smoldering object punched a hole through a surfboard and then sat, for some time, burning amongst the seashells. Lots of excitement ensued, and the whole event was captured on videophone. The Israeli police are investigating, saying the unidentified object “fell from the sky.”

However, looking at the video above, that’s no meteorite.

Sure, when a chunk of space rock enters the Earth’s atmosphere it produces light and flame due to atmospheric ram pressure heating the outer layers, producing a trail of ionized gas. But it’s also worth remembering that space rock is very cold (as it’s been deep frozen in space), so the brief heating during re-entry will not heat the cold rock up substantially when it makes landfall, definitely not enough to make it combust when it lands. Re-entry happens for a very short time, although the shell of the meteorite might heat up a little, the insides of the meteorite remain very cold. Even if the rock was heated up during those few fiery seconds of re-entry, it will decelerate very quickly, falling to the ground at terminal velocity. This would have the effect of cooling it down some more.

In fact, it’s been reported that frost has formed on meteorites as soon as they land. That’s radically different to what we’re seeing here.

Even if this could possibly be a meteorite, what’s burning? Last time I checked, space rock didn’t burn like a firework and produce smoke like a signal flare. And meteorites certainly don’t contain any nitroglycerin. That is unless the Moonpeople are throwing bombs at us again, but I’ll save that theory for another day.

Thanks Avi Joseph for pointing me to this video!

Hubble Conquers Mystic Mountain

Where is that mystical land? (NASA/ESA/HST).

Where is this mystical land? (NASA/ESA/HST).

Sometimes, words are not enough to describe views of the universe when captured through the lens of the Hubble Space Telescope. This is one of those moments.

Kicking off its 20th anniversary (yes, that super-sized telescope has been in space that long — I would say that I remember it being launched, but I don’t, because I was nine, playing with my Star Wars toys), Hubble has published some astonishing images of deep inside the Carina Nebula, some 7,500 light-years from Earth. And, quite frankly, I’m floored.

BIG PIC: Have a look deep inside the Carina Nebula with some of my Discovery News coverage of the event.

The pillar of gas and dust looks like a gnarled tree branch, dotted with sparkling lights. The Hubble press release even describes the structure as a “Mystic Mountain,” and it’s not hard to see why. In this age of computer generated everything, this release of images show that the cosmos contains things that defy our tiny imaginations.

We are looking at a star-forming region, deep inside the nebula, where stars are being born inside the bulbous towers of gas and dust, but on the outside, young stars are battering the tower with intense stellar winds and powerful radiation. The pillar is being eroded away. However, this exterior pressure is seeding the birth of new stars inside the nebulous material.

The mindblowing clarity of this Hubble observation even brings out the fine detail in the jets of ionized gas as it is blasted from the point of the tallest finger of material. This is being generated by a young star, gorging itself on gas, forming a superheated accretion disk, blasting the energized gas out from the stellar nursery.

As Hubble’s 20th anniversary celebrations continue, I think we can expect a lot more where this came from. So brace yourself, this gem of a space telescope may be getting old, but it still has a shedload of cosmos to show us.

Now, lets stand back and get a better view of the incredible floating ‘Mystic Mountain’…

The Carina stellar nursary from afar (NASA/ESA/HST)

The Carina stellar nursary from afar (NASA/ESA/HST)

NASA’s Asteroid Mission: Scary but Useful

Things have been moving fast for NASA in recent weeks, culminating in President Obama’s inspiring speech at Kennedy Space Center on Thursday. I haven’t commented on the new direction for the US space agency’s direction thus far as I’ve needed some time to digest the ramifications of these plans. But generally, I’m positive about the scrapping of the moon goal in favor of a manned asteroid mission (by 2025) and Mars some time around 2035.

But it hasn’t been easy, especially after the Ares I-X test launch in October 2009.

The Ares I-X was the first new NASA manned vehicle my generation has seen take to the skies (I was only one year old when the first of the shuttle fleet launched, beginning nearly 30 years of low-Earth orbit operations, so that doesn’t count). Despite criticism that this test flight was nothing more than old tech dressed up as a sleek “new” rocket, I was thrilled to see it launch.

The end product didn’t matter on that day. Sure, we’ve been to the Moon before, but it just seemed like the best plan on the table. I was inspired, I felt excited about our future in space. Seeing how astronauts live and work on the lunar surface, using it as a stepping stone for further planetary exploration (i.e. Mars) seemed… sensible. Expensive, but sensible

But the overriding sentiment behind Obama’s new plans was that we’ve been there before, why waste billions on going back? Continuing with the bloated Constellation Program would have used up funds it didn’t have. Cost overruns and missed deadlines were already compiling.

So, the White House took on the recommendations of experts and decided to go for something far riskier than a “simple” moon hop. Things going to plan and on schedule, in the year 2025 we’ll see a team of astronauts launch for a much smaller and far more distant target than the moon.

The asteroid plan has many benefits, the key being that we need to study these potentially devastating chunks of rock up close. Should one be heading in the direction of Earth, it would be really nice to have the technological ability to deal with it. A manned mission may be necessary to send to a hazardous near-Earth asteroid. Think Armageddon but with less nukes, no Bruce Willis, but more science and planning. Besides, if a rock the size of a city is out there, heading right at us, I’m hopeful we’ll have more than 18 days to deal with the thing.

My Discovery News colleague Ray Villard agrees:

“A several month-long human round trip to an asteroid will test the sea legs of astronauts for interplanetary journeys. And, asteroids are something we have to take very seriously in coming up with an Earth defense strategy, so that we don’t wind up going extinct like the dinosaurs.”

Possibly even more exciting than the asteroid plan is what — according to Obama — will happen ten years after that: a manned mission to Mars. I can’t overemphasize my enthusiasm for a mission to the Red Planet; that will be a leap for mankind like no other. Granted, there is plenty of criticism flying around that we need to live on the moon first before we attempt to land on Mars, but looking at the new plan, we won’t be actually landing on Mars any time soon. A 2030′s mission to Mars will most likely be a flyby, or if we’re really lucky, an orbital manned mission.

And that’s why going to an asteroid will be a good first step. Spending months cramped inside a spaceship with a handful of crewmates will likely be one of the biggest challenges facing man in space, so popping over to a near-Earth asteroid first is a good idea. A Mars trip could take over a year (depending on the mission). Now, this is where technological development sure would help.

If NASA can plough dedicated funds into new technologies, new life support and propulsion systems can be developed. Those two things will really help astronauts get places quicker (avoiding boredom) and live longer (avoiding… death). For the “living longer” part, there appears to be genuine drive to increase the life of the space station and do more impressive science on it. As it’s our only manned outpost, perhaps we’ll be able to use it for what it’s designed for.

There are a lot of unknowns still, and Obama’s Thursday speech certainly wasn’t NASA’s silver bullet, but it’s a start. Allocating serious funding for space technology development whilst setting the space program’s sights on going where no human has been before will surely boost enthusiasm for space exploration. In fact, I’d argue that this is exactly what NASA should be doing.

Although I was dazzled by the Ares I-X, I can see that continuing with Constellation would have been a flawed decision. Launching a manned mission to explore an interplanetary threat sounds risky, but considering that asteroids are the single biggest cosmic threat to civilization, it sure would be useful to know we have the technology to send astronauts to asteroids, perhaps even dealing with a potential threat in the near future.

Comet Fights with the Sun. Loses.

The comet death dive (NASA/ESA/SOHO).

The comet death dive (NASA/ESA/SOHO).

What happens when you put a snowball in front of an open fireplace? It melts. What happens when you throw a comet at the Sun? Erm… it doesn’t end well. In fact, as this daredevil comet proves, comets get vapourized very quickly. And the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) captured the whole event, here’s a video.

Sungrazing comets are spotted fairly regularly and this particular comet spotted over the weekend is likely a member of the Kreutz sungrazer family. This group of comets are thought to have been spawned when a giant comet broke up over 2000 years ago. However, the larger Kreutz fragments usually make a close approach to the Sun 3 or 4 times a year, but there have been 3 such events in 2010 so far.

As noted by Spaceweather.com, this could just be a statistical anomaly, but it could be that these fragments are a part of a swarm of comets approaching perihelion (closest approach to the Sun).

Either way, if you’re a comet, don’t venture too close to the Sun, you might get eaten.