Supersonic Snowballs, Science, and Stuff

Dr. Karl Battams

About Karl

A Brief Bio

I've had a life-long fascination for science, but I can not truthfully confess to being one of those kids enamored by astronomy my whole life. However, as I wound my way through high school I found my interests converging towards space-related studies, resulting in an undergrad degree in Astrophysics. Not long out of undergrad and following a 6-month stint at an electronics company in Pennsylvania, I started as a contract employee in the NRL Space Science Division (Solar Physics Branch) in late 2003, becoming a federal employee in 2008. Along the way, inspired by an increased fascination with computational methods and visualization, I completed a Master of Science and then Doctorate in  Computational Sciences.​​

My work at NRL is largely split in two divergent areas. I'm best known for the comet work I do, simply because that has a large public outreach component (and people love comets - as they should!). Since I started at the Lab in 2003, I have been in charge of the NASA-funded Sungrazer Project, which is a citizen science project that enables anyone in the world with an internet connection to search for, report and discover previously unknown comets near the Sun. Since I joined the project, I have personally overseen the discovery of more than 2,500 comets, with the project total over 3,000 discoveries now. My role is to maintain the website, confirm/deny reports of comets, and perform the necessary precise astrometric measures of the comets necessary for orbit determinations of the objects. In essence, the amateur astronomers provide the raw data (comet discoveries) and I produce the basic science data (astrometry).

The other aspect of my work is analysis of the images that our group take with telescopes aboard NASA and ESA spacecraft. So this involves all kinds of computational image processing and analysis, signal and feature detection, time series analysis, high-performance computing, and a lot of software writing. I talk far less about this stuff, but it's just as professionally rewarding to me as the comets.


BSc Astrophysics (University College London, UK)
MS Computational Science (George Mason University, Fairfax, VA)
PhD Computational Science (George Mason University, Fairfax, VA)


2003 - 2008: Data Analyst, Interferometrics Inc (Based at the US Naval Research Laboratory, Washington DC)
2008 - Present: Computational Scientist, US Naval Research Laboratory, Washington DC

Select Professional Roles

​​​​​NASA Sungrazer Project PI (2003 - Present)
NASA Comet ISON Observing Campaign Team Member (2012-2013)
NASA Campaign Integration Observations of Comets Team Member (2014)
Committee Lead for NRL Code 7000 Exhibits Booth (2011-2013, 2016)  
NASA Comet ISON Media Conference (Fall AGU, San Francisco, CA, 2013)


Select Invited Presentations

The Sungrazer Citizen Science Project, Fall AGU (California)
Cooking a Thanksgiving Comet: Piecing Together the Evidence for Comet ISON's Destruction, NASA/GSFC (Maryland); Univ. Maryland (Maryland); George Mason University (Virginia); Univ. Central Florida (Florida); IAU General Assembly (Hawaii)
The Sungrazer Project: 20yrs and 3,000 Comets Later, Royal Society (London, UK)
Observing Near-Sun Comets with SOHO and STEREO, Royal Astronomical Society (London, UK)
Sungrazing Comets: Snowballs in Hell, North York Astronomical Association (Ontario, Canada); Fall AGU (California)


Select Recent Publications

Battams, K. & Knight, M. “SOHO: 20-years and 3,000 Comets Later”, Phil. Trans. of the Royal Soc. A, Volume 375, Issue 2097, id.20160257 
Jones G., et al, “The Science of Sungrazers, Sunskirters, and Other Near-Sun Comets“, Space Science Reviews, Vol. 214,1,20, 2018
Hui, M.-T. et al, “Gone in a Blaze of Glory: The Demise of Comet C/2015 D1 (SOHO)”, ApJ, 813, 73, 2015
Knight, M. & Battams, K., “Preliminary Analysis of SOHO/STEREO Observations of Sungrazing Comet ISON (C/2012 S1) around Perihelion”, ApJ, 782, L37, 2014
Schrijver et al, “Destruction of Sun-Grazing Comet C/2011 N3 (SOHO) Within the Low Solar Corona”, Science, Vol. 335, pp. 324-328, 2012 

Outreach Activities

Several times a year I give an Astronomy Chat at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. (This a public Q&A where I show a variety of movies of the Sun and comets, talk about them, and answer any astronomy questions folks may have.)
- Science documentaries for Discovery, PBS, BBC, NHK and a few small promotional videos
- School visits (all grades) including "dry ice" comet making demos
- Sky and Telescope article, "ISON's Day in the Sun" [April 2014]
- Blogs for Planetary Society,, and 
- Hangouts: NASA Comet ISON Hangout, Eulogy for a Comet

Media Quotes and Interviews

 Interviews and quotes for various news outlets, including:   
- Death Dive! Comet Plunges Into the Sun at Mind-blowing Speed [, Aug 2016]
Watch an enormous "Plasma Snake" erupt from the Sun [, Dec 2015]
ESA/NASA Solar Observatory Discovers its 3,000th Comet [, Sep 2015]
Nearing 3000 comets: SOHO solar observatory greatest comet hunter of all time [, Jul 2015]
Death of a Comet [, Apr 2014] {This might still be my fave so far, particularly for the description of my office... :)}
What would happen if a massive comet crashed into the Sun? [, Jul 2015]
Comet ISON Sweeps Near Sun, Shows Signs of Life [, Nov 2013]
Comet ISON is in solar probe's sights — and a storm is coming! [, Nov 2013] [there were many Comet ISON interviews like this... ]
Astronomers Gearing Up for Possible "Comet of the Century" [, Mar 2013]
Welcome to the Year of the Comet (we hope) [, Mar 2013]
Lovejoy survives encounter with sun and becomes Christmas comet [, Dec 2011] [there were a bunch of Comet Lovejoy articles too]
NASA Spacecraft Finds its 2,000th Comet [, Dec 2010]
Bright Comet Provides Rare View [, Jan 2007]
​- Radio interviews including BBC World Service ( listen here), CBS, NPR (listen here and here), Planetary Society Radio Show ( here), and The Paul Ross Show.