NASA Spacecraft Finds Its 2,000th Comet

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Karl Battams/SOHO/NASA

SOHO's 2000th comet, spotted by a Polish amateur astronomer on Dec. 26.

A satellite orbiting the sun has identified its 2,000th comet after 15 years in space. But the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, known as SOHO, wasn't designed as a comet-hunting spacecraft; its primary research goal is to study the outer atmosphere of the sun.

A satellite with a primary mission to study the sun has proven to be a fortuitous comet hunter. The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, known as SOHO, recently identified its 2,000th comet.

Launched on Dec. 2, 1995, SOHO's main research goal is to study the outer atmosphere of the sun, known as the corona. In the process of orbiting and imaging the sun, SOHO blocks out the brightest part and sends back pictures that are ideal for comet hunters to pore over. Amateur and professional astronomers alike are on the lookout for spots of the right brightness that are headed toward the sun -- characteristics of comets.

On Tuesday, NASA announced that SOHO had successfully identified its 2,000th comet on Dec. 26. The find was made by Michal Kusiak, an astronomy student at Jagiellonian University in Poland. Kusiak also found the 1,999th comet and more than 100 other comets since 2007.

It took astronomers 10 years to identify the first thousand comets, but just five years to find the next 1,000. NASA says this partly because more people are looking at the images, but also because of an unexplained systematic increase in the number of comets around the sun. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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