Monthly Archives: December 2013

Greatest Comets of the Past 500 Years

Huffington Post has this handy recap of five of the Greatest Comets of the Past 500 Years. It’s missing some of my favorites: Donati’s Comet, the Great Comet of 1811 (featured in Tolsoy’s “War and Peace”), the phantasmagorical Great Comet of 1528, the Comet of the Black Death…

Still, there are some nice pictures. I think all of these get a mention in “The Night of the Comet.”

Greatest Comets Ever Seen In Past 500 Years | By Joe Rao
Posted: 12/26/2013 9:18 am EST

When Comet ISON was discovered and a preliminary orbit for it was worked out, it was initially announced that it could be the “comet of the century.”

Of course, the 21st century is only 12 years old (from 2001) and ISON turned out to be a dud. But out there in the far recesses of space there is certainly some unknown comet worthy of such an honorific title that will ultimately put on a unique and memorable show sometime during this century.

There will always be bright and spectacular comets, but in each century there is always one that will stand above the others. Below I provide my own list of the five most spectacular comets that have appeared in each century starting from the 16th and running through the 20th century.

Take note that four of these five dazzlers appeared in the latter half of their century and that the average time between appearances amounts to 97 years. Considering that Comet Ikeya-Seki passed by in 1965, the next prospective “Comet of the Century” might not appear — according to our small sampling — until maybe 2029 at the earliest … and maybe not even until the next century (in 2103!).

Then again, stupendously bright comets are totally unpredictable and can suddenly appear at almost any time.

Greatest Comet of the 16th Century: The Great Comet of 1577

This comet passed to within 16.7 million miles (26.9 million kilometers) of the sun on Oct. 27, but was not sighted until five days later, when it was described in an account from Peru as an exceptionally brilliant object. Contemporary descriptions note that it was seen through the clouds like the moon.


The Great comet of 1577, seen over Prague on November 12. Engraving made by Jiri Daschitzky.

By Nov. 8, it was reported by Japanese observers as a “broom star,” appearing “as bright as the moon” with a white tail spanning over 60 degrees (your clenched fist held at arm’s length measures 10 degrees). The famous astronomer Tycho Brahe first saw the comet as a reflection in his garden fish pond on Nov. 13, and likened its brightness to Venus. The comet was still as bright as zero magnitude inDecember before it finally dropped below the limit of naked-eye visibility on Jan. 26, 1578. (Magnitude is a measure of a celestial object’s brightness, with smaller numbers corresponding to brighter objects.)

Greatest Comet of the 17th Century: The Great Comet of 1680

The great excitement that accompanied the first announcement of the discovery of Comet ISON was that initially its orbit appeared strikingly similar to this spectacular 17th century comet; it was hoped that perhaps ISON was either a return of this amazing object, or at the very least a large fragment. But later calculations showed this was not so.

The Great Comet of 1680 over Rotterdam. People in the drawing are using cross-staffs which were early devices for measuring angles and a predecessor of the sextant.

The German astronomer Gottfried Kirch became the first person to ever discover a comet with a telescope when he sighted this comet on Nov. 14, 1680, when it was at fourth magnitude. By Dec. 2, it already had a 15-degree tail and had reached second magnitude (as bright as Polaris, the North Star). On Dec. 18, it was at perihelion (the closest point to the sun in its orbit) coming to within 128,000 miles (206,000 km) of the sun’s surface.

At least one report (from Albany, NY) indicates that the comet was visible in the daytime. Several days later it could be seen in the evening twilight sky with a tail stretching straight up from a second-magnitude head from the southwest horizon for 70 to 90 degrees. By Jan. 10, 1681, the tail had shrunk to 55 degrees and by the Jan. 23 it measured “only” 30 degrees, with its head having faded to fourth magnitude. It remained visible to the naked eye until early February 1681.

Greatest Comet of the 18th Century: The Great Comet of 1744

First sighted on Nov. 29, 1743, as a dim fourth-magnitude object, this comet brightened rapidly as it approached the sun. Many textbooks often cite Philippe Loys de Cheseaux, of Lausanne, Switzerland, as the discoverer, although his first sighting did not come until two weeks later.


The Great Comet of 1744, or “Comet de Cheseaux-Klinkenberg”, at 4am on March 9, 1744, showing six tails rising above the horizon.

By mid-January 1744, the comet was described as first-magnitude with a 7-degree tail. By Feb. 1, it rivaled Sirius (the brightest star in the sky) and displayed a curved tail, 15 degrees in length. By Feb.18, the comet was equal to Venus in brightness and displayed two tails.

On Feb. 27, it peaked at magnitude -7 and was reported visible in the daytime, 12 degrees from the sun. Perihelion came on March 1, at a distance of 20.5 million miles (33 million km) from the sun. On March 6, the comet appeared in the morning sky, accompanied by six brilliant tails, making it resemble a Japanese hand fan.

Greatest Comet of the 19th Century: The Great September Comet of 1882

This comet is perhaps the brightest comet that has ever been seen and was a gigantic member of the Kreutz Sungrazing Group of Comets. First spotted as a bright zero-magnitude object by a group of Italian sailors in the Southern Hemisphere on Sept. 1, this comet brightened dramatically as it approached its rendezvous with the sun.


Photograph of the Great Comet of 1882, as seen from South Africa.

By Sept. 14, it became visible in broad daylight, and when it arrived at perihelion on Dec. 17, it passed at a distance of only 264,000 miles (425,000 km) from the sun’s surface. On that day, some observers described the comet’s silvery radiance as scarcely fainter than the limb of the Sun, suggesting a magnitude somewhere between -15 and -20 (the latter magnitude would register nearly 1,000 times brighter than the full moon!). The following day, observers in Cordoba, Argentina, described the comet as a “blazing star” near the sun.

The nucleus also broke into at least four separate parts. In the days and weeks that followed, the comet became visible in the morning sky as an immense object sporting a brilliant tail. Today, some comet historians consider it a “Super Comet,” far above the run of even great comets.

Greatest Comet of the 20th Century: Comet Ikeya-Seki, 1965

This was the brightest comet of the 20th century, and was found just over a month before perihelion in the morning sky, moving rapidly toward the Sun. Like the Great Comets of 1843 and 1882, Ikeya-Seki was a Kreutz Sungrazer and on Oct. 21, swept to within 744,000 miles (1.2 million km) of the center of the sun.


This picture was captured on October 30, 1965 showing the full extent of this great comet’s tail of some 30 degrees.

The comet was then visible as a brilliant object within a degree or two of the sun, and wherever the sky was clear, the comet could be seen by observers merely by blocking out the sun with their hands. From Japan, the homeland of the observers who discovered it, Ikeya-Seki was described as appearing “10 times brighter than the full moon,” corresponding to a magnitude of minus 15. Also at that time, the nucleus was observed to break into two or three pieces.

Thereafter, the comet moved away in full retreat from the sun, the head fading very rapidly, but its slender, twisted tail reaching out into space for up to 75 million miles (120 million km), and dominating the eastern morning sky right on through the month of November.

Greatest Comet of the 21st Century: TBD

ISON fizzled, so we continue to wait…

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York’s Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmer’s Almanac and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, N.Y. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+.

Christmas in Space: “God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

This Christmas, NASA is celebrating the 45th anniversary of Apollo 8 and the first manned spacecraft to orbit the Moon. The astronauts of Apollo 8 took this iconic photo of the first-seen Earthrise on Christmas Eve in 1968.


NPR has nice coverage of it here.

Astronaut Bill Anders: “Oh, my God, look at that picture over there. There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!” To astronaut James Lovell: “You got a color film, Jim? Hand me a roll of color, quick, would you?”

Lovell: “Oh, man, that’s great! Where is it?”

Anders: “Hurry. Quick.”

Lovell: “Down here?”

Anders: “Just grab me a color. A color exterior. Hurry up. Got one?”

Lovell: “Yeah, I’m lookin’ for one. C368.”

Anders: “Anything quick.”

Anders: “I think we missed it.”

Anders: “Wait a minute, just let me get the right setting here now, just calm down. Calm down, Lovell!”


A few years later, astronauts in the Skylab (the fellows who tracked Comet Kohoutek) would celebrate their 1973 Christmas with this tree made from used space-food tubes:

Skylab Christmas Tree


And this Christmas, lest we forget, there are still men in space. Yesterday in the International Space Station, astronauts Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio were busy making repairs to their craft during a seven-hour space walk.

ISS Repairs 2013


Retired Apollo 8 astronaut James Lovell–the one who couldn’t find the camera–commemorated the first Christmas in space by repeating the words he beamed back to Earth in 1968:

“We close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas — and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

Comets Kohoutek and ISON in The Baltimore Sun

Just now caught this in The Baltimore Sun, a nice review of 1973’s Comet Kohoutek, relating it to this year’s Comet ISON.

Back Story: Comet Kohoutek Was Another Flameout
Like ISON, it didn’t live up to the hype

By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun
December 5, 2013

Comet ISON

Comet ISON is pictured in this Nov. 19, 2013, handout photo by NASA, taken using a 14-inch telescope located at the Marshall Space Flight Center at 6:10 a.m. EST with a three-minute exposure. (NASA, Reuters, November 27, 2013)


Comets ISON and Kohoutek will forever share two things. Both were hailed as “Comets of the Century,” and both failed to live up to the hype attending their impending arrival in our solar system.

Unlike Comet Hale-Bopp, which put on a grand show in 1997 before departing the inner solar system for a 3,000-year journey through deep space, comets ISON and Kohoutek were profound flops that left thousands of disappointed stargazers across the world who had high expectations for experiencing a somewhat-rare celestial occurrence.

No one knows more about the unpredictability of comets and their fickle ways than Dr. Lubus Kohoutek, the Czechoslovakian astronomer who discovered the comet that would be named for him on March 7, 1973, while studying photographic plates at the Hamburg-Bergedorf Observatory in Germany.

News surrounding the important discovery of Kohoutek — whose formal scientific designation was C/19731 — was underscored by Dr. Brian Marsden who headed the International Clearinghouse for Astronomical Discoveries in Cambridge, Mass.

“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Comet Kohoutek ends up being classified as the best comet of the century,” Marsden told The Evening Sun. “An object that large should achieve unusual brightness and produce an exceptional tail.”

Anticipation of its arrival in late November was fueled by initial reports that it was larger than the famed Halley’s Comet of 1910, whose tail extended some 60 million miles, and that Kohoutek had last made a pass by the sun some 10,000 years ago.

The Evening Sun built anticipation by saying Kohoutek “wasn’t just any comet. It is a comet with a capital C,” adding that it had been “60 years since a major naked-eye comet appeared.”

The incessant drumbeat by the press kept up, even reporting that the British liner Queen Elizabeth 2 had on board 1,963 comet enthusiasts who had booked a special cruise off the coast of South Carolina in which to take in the comet.

And then the bottom began to fall out by mid-December.

“The much-publicized Comet Kohoutek is proving to be a disappointment to sky-watchers, if not a fizzle,” reported The Wall Street Journal, with the newspaper reporting two weeks later that the comet was a “celestial box-office dud because it isn’t dirty enough.”

A NASA official explained to The Wall Street Journal that “Comet Kohoutek turns out to be a comet that has much less dust than expected,” adding that gas dust is the essential component in forming spectacularly beautiful tails that can be seen by the naked eye when they are near the sun.

In early January 1974, the comet was growing fainter as it traveled away from the sun at the speed of 163,000 mph, some 85 million miles away from Earth, as it went back to where it had originated.

With the naked-eye option gone, The Washington Post lamented on Jan. 5, 1974, that the “only way to see the comet now is through a pair of binoculars or a telescope.” Astronauts aboard Skylab 4 and Soyuz 13 probably had the best view of all.

“Watergate, then the energy crisis, and now the comet,” a Boston resident said to The New York Times.

“For the first time in my life I am terribly embarrassed. At Christmas a few weeks ago, I gave all my readers a present. It was the Comet Kohoutek. … It was your comet, and it was given to you as a token of appreciation for how nice you had been to me in 1973,” wrote humorist Art Buchwald in The Washington Post.

“I wish I could give you something else in its place, but Kohoutek used up all my money. It was one lousy rip off and I assure you it’s going to be a long time before I buy a comet for anybody again,” he wrote.

Discoverer Kohoutek retired in 2001.

The Georgia rock band R.E.M. musically immortalized the comet with lyrics in a song aptly titled “Kohoutek” that it included in its 1985 album, “Fables of the Reconstruction.”

She carried ribbons, she wore them out

Courage built a bridge, jealousy tore it down

At least it’s something you’ve left behind

And like Kohoutek, you were gone.

Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun

Comet Cocktail No. 3 at Arnaud’s French 75

Sorry to say I lost the napkin on which Nicola Wolf, record keeper, wrote the recipe for Comet Cocktail No. 3. But it was created by Vince of Arnaud’s French 75 Bar, and it contained gin, Campari, and, I think, creme de cassis. (This was actually his third version of the cocktail; Vince is such a perfectionist that he wouldn’t even let us taste the first two.)

Here, Vince seeks to recreate the Southern night sky in a glass. The lemon peel is the comet blazing through the sky. I can vouch that it tasted heavenly.

Vince at Arnaud's


If you’ve never been to Arnaud’s French 75, by the way, too bad for you. Vince, the bartender has recently returned to New Orleans from San Francisco. He couldn’t stay away.

Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen . . .

. . . Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen.

The Night Before Christmas

The good folks at the Greenfield, WI public library have thoughtfully included THE NIGHT OF THE COMET on their list of reading recommendations based on the names of Santa’s reindeers in the 1823 poem “The Night Before Christmas,” by Clement Moore. Here‘s the full list:

DASHER (Books on Running)
-Complete Book of Running – Runner’s World 796.426 RUN
-Better Training for Distance Runners – David E. Martin & Peter N. Coe 796.425 MAR
-Fundamentals of Track and Field – Gerald Carr 796.42 CAR

DANCER (Dance in DVDs)
-Singin’ in the Rain – DVD SIN
-Dance Like a Star: Salsa Lessons – DVD 793.33 SAL
-Pina: Dance, Dance, Otherwise We Are Lost – DVD 792.8

PRANCER (Horse-Related Children’s Books)
-Wonder Horse – Emily Arnold McCully PIC MCC
-Safe Horse, Safe Rider: A Young Rider’s Guide to Responsible Horsekeeping – Jessie Haas J 798.2 HAA
-Horse Heroes: True Stories of Amazing Horses – Kate Petty J 636.1 PET

VIXEN (Varieties of Foxes)
-Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist – Michael J. Fox BIO FOX, Michael J.
-The Ultimate Experience (feat. Foxy Lady) – The Jimi Hendrix Experience CD ROC HEN
-Fox Terriers: Everything About History, Care, Nutrition, Handling, and Behavior – Sharon L. Vanderlip 636.755 VAN

COMET (Books and Stories About Comets)
Comets!: Visitors from Deep Space – David Eicher & David Levy 523.6 EIC
Comets – Samantha Bonar J 523.6 BON
The Night of the Comet: A Novel – George Bishop F BISHOP, George

CUPID (Romance Fiction Audiobooks)
The Inn at Rose Harbor – Debbie Macomber CD FIC MAC
First Sight – Danielle Steel CD FIC STE
The Perfect Hope – Nora Roberts CD FIC ROB

DONNER (Fashion Books)
-Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible: The Fascinating History of Everything in Your Closet – Tim Gunn 746.92 GUN
-Fashion Makers, Fashion Shapers: The Essential Guide to Fashion by Those in the Know – Anne-Celine Jaeger 746.92 JAE
-The Power of Style: Everything You Need to Know Before You Get Dressed Tomorrow – Bobbie Thomas 646.7042 THO

BLITZEN (Football Biographies)
-Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman – Jon Krakauer BIO TILLMAN, Pat
-Driven: From Homeless to Hero, My Journeys On and Off Lambeau Field – Donald Driver BIO DRIVER, Donald
-Alan Ameche: The Story of “The Horse” – Dan Manoyan BIO AMECHE, Alan

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from everyone at Greenfield Public Library!

Comet Cocktails in New Orleans Nos. 1 and 2

What better way to celebrate the holidays, thought I, than a Night O’ the Comet cocktail? On the recommendation of Ms. Nicola Wolf, I made my way to Sylvain restaurant and bar, in the French Quarter, where the talented and agreeable Darrin Ylisto, bartender extraordinaire, with the help of Lucy Weed, also extraordinaire, whipped up a couple of speciality cocktails.

“See this book cover here,” said I, presenting a reproduction of the cover of my new novel, THE NIGHT OF THE COMET. “Can you do a cocktail like that?”

The Night of the Comet Cover Final

Darrin frowned. He scratched his chin. Inspired, he recollected a quote attributed to Dom Perignon upon first tasting champagne. “Come quickly!” said Dom. “I am drinking stars!”

Darrin’s Comet Cocktail No. 1 began with Prosecco sparkling wine. To this was added a sugar cube liberally doused with creme de violet, then a lemon twist, and perhaps some other things that I missed.

Comet Cocktail No 1 a

Comet Cocktail No 1 b

Comet Cocktail No 1 c

The cocktail was delish. “But wait!” said Darrin. “I can do better!”

Darrin’s Comet Cocktail No. 2 began with egg whites, which is always a good way to begin a cocktail.

Comet Cocktail No 2 a

Next came Aviation Gin, then, I think, Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, then lemon juice, and then plenty of creme de violet. He shook the hell out of it.

Comet Cocktail No 2 b

Comet Cocktail No 2 c

Shake-a shake-a shake-a shake . . .

Comet Cocktail No 2 d

Comet Cocktail No 2 e

Lucky carved up a lemon peel, and voila!

Comet Cocktail No 2 f

Here are Darrin and Lucy, a little blurry after a few drinks. Merci beaucoup, Darrin and Lucy! Joyeaux Noel!

Comet Cocktail No 2 g

Songs with Astronomical Themes No. 14: “Champagne Supernova,” by Oasis

I’m still sulking about the whole Comet ISON thing. Don’t even talk to me about ISON.

To help us get over that disappointment, here’s another favorite song with an astronomical theme, Oasis’s seven-minute-long, “Champagne Supernova,” from 1996. I know I’ve posted this before, but I figure no one’s keeping track.

Break out your tie-dye and enjoy.

A Picture Book of Astronomy

These terrific illustrations from “A Picture Book of Astronomy” (Jerome Meyer, 1945) were done by Richard Floethe. From the blog “My Vintage Book Collection,” via Stephen Ellcock’s Facebook archives.


apicturebookofastronomy apicturebookofastronomy24





More Party Pics from Faulkner Fest

With mega-star Southern author Robert Hicks (“The Widow of the South” and “A Separate Country”):

Robert Hicks

And soon-to-be novelist Jennifer Steil (“The Ambassador’s Wife”):

Jennifer Steil

I believe there were other pictures. They have been lost.

At the Faulkner Fest

With panelists Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin (“The Tilted World”), plus Faulkner House Books owner Joe DeSalvo. That’s not a urine sample Joe’s holding; it’s a jar of moonshine Beth and Tom brought to him from Mississippi.

Faulkner Fest 2013