It may be the closest thing to hell ever observed by science.
Researchers revealed breathtaking images on Thursday of a kamikaze comet called C/2011 N3 (SOHO) taking a swan-dive into the sun.
Images and research published in the journal Science show a house-sized rock plummeting at more than 1 million miles per hour through million-degree temperatures to within a relative hair's breadth of the sun's surface.
Observations like this have never been seen before, says Karel Schrijver, who led the research at Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory in Palo Alto, California. "It's never been observed anywhere near this close to the sun."
Comets that brush by the sun are called sungrazers. Thanks to orbiting satellites that can better observe sungrazers, scientists believe they can learn more about how the sun works and the ancient beginnings of Earth.
Analysis of data from last July's comet strike paints a picture of a fascinating ride into a virtual hell.
Imagine sitting on top of the comet as it streaks toward the sun at more than 1 million mph. Looking like "the dirtiest snowball that's ever been made," the black, half-rock, half-ice comet pours off vapor and dust due to evaporating water streaming from its surface at 1,000 mph, says Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory planetary astronomer Carey Lisse, who reviewed the research.
Closing in fast, the comet hits the sun's 1,000,000-degree Fahrenheit corona, creating a fiery shockwave of gas in front of it. The ride gets bumpier and bumpier. The comet begins to rotate faster and faster, and it begins to shed chunks.
Finally - about 62,000 miles from the surface of the sun - nothing.
A 70,000-ton rock's 30-minute suicide dive into a raging cauldron reduces it to vapor.
"That's when we realized we'd not just captured a comet, we'd actually seen it vanish - the end of the life of that particular comet," says Schrijver. "It had completely evaporated."
By studying how comets fall apart, scientists may be able to reverse the process and learn how planets are formed, says Lisse. We still don't know how space dust - a.k.a. "the stuff between the stars" - coalesces to form planets. But comets are made of this stuff. So if we can figure out how comets are created, we'll know a lot more about how Earth formed.
"Comets really are the dinosaur bones of solar system formation," says Lisse. Hundreds of comets brush by the sun each year, experts say, but only one or two per year actually hit the blazing bullseye.
July's sungrazer was a piece of the Kreutz comet, Lisse says, a larger object that broke apart thousands of years ago yielding spectacular comets reported on Earth in the years 1106, 1843, 1882 and 1965. The last of those, called Ikeya-Seki, was bright enough to be seen during the day.
Lockheed Martin's paper stemmed from combined data from NASA's orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SHO) and the Solar-Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO).
As more sun-grazers are pinpointed, scientists may be able to learn clues to a comet's makeup by performing thermal desorption spectroscopy, Lisse predicts. It's a technique that identifies the comet's elements by the type of light it gives off while the sun toasts it like an interstellar marshmallow.
Lockheed Martin's scientists determined C/2011 N3 (SOHO)'s mass by measuring energy from the sun's light and the amount of energy it takes to evaporate material off the comet, says Schrijver.
By observing more sungrazers, Schijver hopes to uncover mysteries about the region around the sun that's been hidden by extreme light conditions. He's interested in learning more about the acceleration of charged particles given off by the sun - the solar wind.
"These are places that we have no other means of exploring," he says.
So, get ready to see more hellish images of building-sized boulders vanishing into thin air on the surface of the sun. "I predict this is just the beginning," says Lisse.
Just last month a comet dubbed Lovejoy crashed into the sun and actually survived - astonishing many amateur and professional astronomers by piercing the sun's super-heated atmosphere without being pulled in and disintegrated.
Schrijver says teams are already being assembled to track other sun-grazers with the SDO satellite.
In effect, by their demise, comets become nature's scientific probes, possibly to unlock a treasure trove of knowledge about our solar system.