Comet Images

From “Record of the World’s Change”

“When a comet appears in the Constellation Hydra, there is war and some conspire to overthrow the emperor. Fish and salt are expensive. Rice also becomes expensive. People hate life and don’t even want to speak of it.” (Record of the World’s Change, Li Ch’un Feng, 602-667 AD)

Image from Das Wundereichenbuch (The Book of Miracles), Augsburg, 1550

The Comet Chaser Lives!

In case you were wondering whatever happened to the Rosetta spacecraft and its probe Philae that crash-landed on Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko back in November and then went dead: the probe has awakened. As of yesterday, the little lost lander was sending signals again back to Earth.

“Philae is doing very well,” project manager Stephan Ulamec said.

Here on a quiet, cloudy morning in New Orleans, this news cheers me.


Comet Chaser Sends Back Photos

The spacecraft Rosetta, which has been trailing Comet Churyomov-Gerasimenko for over 10 years, recently sent back these amazing close-up photos of the comet. Read more about it in the New York Times, here.







Comet Siding Spring: Once in a Million Years

Astronomers are excited about Comet Siding Spring’s very close encounter with Mars this coming Sunday. Siding Spring was spotted back in January 2013. An Oort Cloud comet, it’s said to be the size of a small mountain, with a million-year orbit. A posse of spacecraft and Mars rovers are jockeying into position right now to observe it. Here on Earth, the comet will be visible with binoculars in the Southern Hemisphere.

How close will Comet Siding Spring come to Mars? 83,000 miles–which in space distances is a hair’s breadth, about a third of the distance between here and the Moon. Last year, before they’d plotted out its trajectory, astronomers were genuinely worried that the comet might hit Mars.

Its trajectory is such that it’ll never get closer to the Earth than some 83 million miles, so no need to panic yet. Of course, passing that close to Mars, there’s a possibility that Siding Spring might upset the Red Planet’s orbit, throwing the whole solar system out of whack, in which case, well . . . Best not to think about that.


The Comet Chaser Catches Its Comet

The big news in space today is that the European Space Agency’s “Rosetta” spacecraft has, after a ten-year journey, finally rendezvoused with its target, Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenk.

Here’s a picture of Comet C-G up close:


I mentioned the comet chaser in a post back in January. The New York Times has a front-page article about the Rosetta mission in the paper today.

The Times writes:

“From a distance, the blurry blob initially looked somewhat like a rubber duck. As the details came into focus, it began to bear a closer resemblance to a knob of ginger flying through space.”

The comet’s far enough from the sun (330 million miles) that it’s still just a hunk of ice and rock. As it gets closer, the sun will heat the comet and it will begin to acquire the familiar coma and tail of a comet.

The Rosetta spacecraft will accompany Comet C-G for a year, flying right alongside it as it circles the sun.

The Book of Miracles

I’ve posted illustrations from the fantastic 16th century “The Book of Miracles” before. The manuscript is in the news lately because a new reproduction of it has just been published, with commentary, by Taschen Books. It got a write-up in the New York Review of Books a few days ago.

Briefly, The Book of Miracles was created in Augsburg (now in Germany) around 1550. The color illustrations depict “wondrous and often eerie celestial phenomena, constellations, conflagrations, and floods as well as other catastrophes and occurrences” (Taschen). Several comets appear in the book, which is why I happened to come across it. It reminds me of the old Ripley’s “Believe it or Not!” series, only it’s better.

Below are some images from the book that I’ve pulled from the Taschen website. Enjoy!

Book of Miracles 1

Book of Miracles 6

Book of Miracles 8

Book of Miracles 7

Book of Miracles 10

Book of Miracles 9

Book of Miracles 3

Book of Miracles 5

Book of Miracles 2

Book of Miracles Cover

Book of Miracles Back Cover

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+.

Chinese Comets and the Record of the World’s Changes

The ancient Chinese were the world’s first and best astronomers. Carl Sagan dates their astronomical record-keeping back to 1500 BC. Star catalogues listed hundreds of comets over hundreds of years, and included detailed information on dates, appearance, and location of comets.

The Chinese drew up the world’s first cometary atlas, too, the Mawangdui Silk, as it’s called, ca. 300 BC. Here’s a portion of it:

Chinese Comet Atlas

And here’s one of my favorite entries from the “Record of the World’s Changes,” by Li Ch’un, 602-667:

“When a comet appears in the Constellation Hydra, there is war and some conspire to overthrow the emperor. Fish and salt are expensive. The emperor dies. Rice also becomes expensive. There is no emperor in the country. The people hate life and don’t even want to speak of it.”

“The people hate life and don’t even want to speak of it.” Indeed.

Favorite Astronomy Poems No. 1: “Halley’s Comet,” by Stanley Kunitz

A view of Halley’s Comet from the Lick Observatory, Mount Hamilton, California, June 6, 1910

I kept this poem taped to the wall above my desk while I was writing “The Night of the Comet.”

by Stanley Kunitz

Miss Murphy in first grade

wrote its name in chalk

across the board and told us

it was roaring down the stormtracks

of the Milky Way at frightful speed

and if it wandered off its course

and smashed into the earth

there’d be no school tomorrow.

A red-bearded preacher from the hills

with a wild look in his eyes

stood in the public square

at the playground’s edge

proclaiming he was sent by God

to save every one of us,

even the little children.

“Repent, ye sinners!” he shouted,

waving his hand-lettered sign.

At supper I felt sad to think

that it was probably

the last meal I’d share

with my mother and my sisters;

but I felt excited too

and scarcely touched my plate.

So mother scolded me

and sent me early to my room.

The whole family’s asleep

except for me. They never heard me steal

into the stairwell hall and climb

the ladder to the fresh night air.

Look for me, Father, on the roof

of the red brick building

at the foot of Green Street–
that’s where we live, you know, on the top floor.

I’m the boy in the white flannel gown

sprawled on this coarse gravel bed

searching the starry sky,

waiting for the world to end.

Birmingham, Nazis, and Comets

Birmingham, Nazis, and Comets: A Short Photo Essay

One free morning while I was in Birmingham, Ala., on my book tour for THE NIGHT OF THE COMET, I took a stroll out of my hotel to visit the Birmingham Museum of Art. (It’s an excellent museum, by the way, and well worth the visit if you’re ever in Birmingham.)

To get to the museum, I walked past the downtown Jefferson County Courthouse, and was struck by something I saw carved into the marble pedestals on either side of the rear entrance of the courthouse:

Courthouse Pedestals

A closer look:

Pedestal Close-up

That’s right, those are swastikas, infamously associated with Nazis and Nazism since the National Socialist German Workers Party adopted the swastika as their official symbol in 1920. As in:



Hitler with Flag

But what were swastikas doing on the Birmingham courthouse? What could they signify here?

Historically, Alabama, like my own native Louisiana, has not exactly been known as a model of racial tolerance and diversity.

See, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Birmingham jail:

King in Jail

Or Alabama state troopers attacking civil-rights demonstrators during the Selma to Montgomery march on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965:


Or Birmingham police fire-hosing black high schools students:


You get the idea.

Even today, Alabama harbors white supremacy groups–30 “active hate groups,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The Council of Conservative Citizens, for example, has chapters in Birmingham, Montgomery, Florence, Jasper, and Cullman:


The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan has chapters in at least five Alabama cities:


And there’s a chapter of the National Socialist Movement in Mobile:

(This photo is from a rally in Minneapolis, not Mobile.)

Nevertheless, it’s highly unlikely that the swastikas carved into the courthouse steps in Birmingham have anything to do with Nazism or white supremacy.

The Jefferson County Courthouse was built in 1930 by a Chicago architectural firm, and the pedestals and its swastikas were probably carved sometime in the late 20s. Prior to World War II, the swastika appeared here and there as a decorative element on public buildings and monuments all around the U.S., without any association to Nazism or Germany.

Here it is shown as a good luck symbol on an American postcard from 1907:

Good Luck Swastika

The swastika as a symbol has been around for millennia, dating back as far as 3000 BC, when it showed up in the Indus Valley during the Bronze Age. According to Wiki, “Swastikas have also been used in various other ancient civilizations around the world including India, Iran, Nepal, China, Japan, Korea and Europe.” They’re found in Native American culture, as well.

Today, if you travel in India, you’ll see the swastika everywhere, especially on temples; it’s used as a religious symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Like this:


The word itself, “swastika,” is from ancient Sanskrit and means, literally, “to be good.”

The question, then, is how this symbol, carved into the county courthouse in Birmingham, demonized by the Nazis, and used all over the world for centuries, came to exist in the first place? Stranger still, the symbol apparently arose spontaneously at roughly the same time in many different cultures spread very far apart, as a common representation of something, shall we say, divine. How did this happen?

Carl Sagan (1934-1996), the famous astronomer who for a couple of decades made stargazing cool, had a fascinating theory.

He proposed that the swastika symbol was inspired by a comet: a strange, great comet that was witnessed simultaneously by people all over the world, centuries ago.

He explains it (with Ann Druyan) in his 1985 book “Comet”:

“What we are imagining is something like this: It is early in the second millennium B.C. Perhaps Hammurabi is King in Babylon, Sesostris III rules in Egypt, or Minos in Crete . . . While all the people on Earth are going about their daily business, a rapidly spinning comet with four active streamers appears.”

He goes on:

“If something like it slowly materialized in your night sky amidst shrouds and fountains of dust–something self-propelled, animate, almost purposeful–you would surely find the experience noteworthy. You would speculate on its meaning, its religious significance, its portent. People would copy the symbol down so other would know about it, so that this marvel would not be forgotten. Whether you view it as an auspicious sign or as a harbinger of disaster, no one need explain to you that this thing is important.”

As proof, Sagan offers this ancient atlas of observed comets, from the Han Dynasty in China, third or fourth century BC, recorded by “the culture with the longest tradition of careful observation of comets.” And there it is, number 29 in a catalogue of comets, comet “Di-Xing,” “the long-tailed pheasant star”:


So there you have it. The unexpected but not completely implausible line from this:


To this:


To this:


(Apologies, by the way, to all the very kind and decent people I met while traveling in Alabama. This is not meant to be about you.)