Comet News

The Great Comet of 1861

The Great Comet of 1861 was “discovered” today, May 13, 1861, by John Tebbutt, a sheep farmer and amateur astronomer of Windsor, New South Wales, Australia.

(An impression of the great comet of 1861 as seen from Kent on the evening of June 30th. The Earth is believed to have passed through the comet’s tail on this day. Painting © Chris Chatfield.)

“The comet of 1861 was not the most spectacular of the nineteenth century (that probably being the comet of 1811) or the most beautiful, which was Donati’s of 1858, but its appearance was dramatic, and it interacted with the Earth in an almost unprecedented way. For a while the Earth was actually within the comet’s tail, and the inhabitants of this planet had a brief but giddy view of streams of cometary material converging towards the distant nucleus. By day also the Sun was dimmed as the Earth ploughed through the comet’s gas and dust.”

More about the Comet of 1861 here.  

April Fool’s Day Comet

Really it’s named comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresák, but that doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it? This Saturday night, April 1, 2017, it’ll make its closest flyby of Earth since its discovery in 1858.

You’ll need a strong pair of binoculars or a telescope to see it. More about it here.

Tons of Cosmic Dust Everywhere

A recent New York Times article describes a cool phenomenon that gets a mention in THE NIGHT OF THE COMET:  the tons of cosmic dust that rain down on the Earth every day.  10 tons of it, every day.

These examples of space dust found on Earth are collected in a new book, “In Search of Stardust: Amazing Micro-Meteorites and Their Terrestrial Imposters,” and were found on buildings, parking lots, sidewalks and park benches. Credit Jan Braly Kihle/Jon Larsen.

Says the article:

“The dust consists of tiny remnants from the solar system’s birth, including debris from the lumps of dirty ice known as comets and from ages of smashups among planets and the big rocks known as asteroids. While most of the particles are interplanetary in nature, some contain grains of matter from outside the solar system, or true stardust . . .

“’Your car is covered with cosmic dust,’ Dr. Brownlee said. ‘We inhale this stuff. We eat it every time we eat lettuce. But normally, it’s incredibly difficult to find.'”

The article describes how one amateur scientist finally devised a way to find and photograph all this stuff.  Click on the above link in the title to read, or see the full text below. 


After decades of failures and misunderstandings, scientists have solved a cosmic riddle — what happens to the tons of dust particles that hit the Earth every day but seldom if ever get discovered in the places that humans know best, like buildings and parking lots, sidewalks and park benches.

The answer? Nothing. Look harder. The tiny flecks are everywhere.

An international team found that rooftops and other cityscapes readily collect the extraterrestrial dust in ways that can ease its identification, contrary to science authorities who long pooh-poohed the idea as little more than an urban myth kept alive by amateur astronomers.

Remarkably, the leader of the discovery team — and co-author of a recent paper in Geology, a monthly journal of the Geological Society of America — turns out to be a gifted amateur who devoted himself to disproving the skeptics.

A noted jazz musician in Norway, he rearranged his life to include eight long years of extraterrestrial sleuthing. His hunt has now produced a significant discovery, a colorful book for lay readers and what scientists call a portrait gallery of alien visitors.

“I hope and believe this will start something,” the musician, Jon Larsen, said in an interview. His goal? “Making it easy.”

His book, “In Search of Stardust: Amazing Micro-Meteorites and Their Terrestrial Imposters,” due out in August, details the secret of his extraordinarily successful hunts. Its 150 pages and 1,500 photomicrographs, or photos taken through a microscope, tell how Mr. Larsen taught himself to distinguish cosmic dust from the minuscule contaminants that arise from roads, shingles, factories, roof tiles, construction sites, home insulation and holiday fireworks.

As his book puts it, “To pick out one extraterrestrial particle among billions of others requires knowledge both about what to look for and what to disregard.”

The diminutive flecks to which Mr. Larsen, 58, has devoted himself represent the smallest parts of a cosmic downpour that has lashed the Earth for billions of years.

Careful observers of the night sky are familiar with shooting stars — speeding bits of extraterrestrial rock that plunge through the Earth’s atmosphere, often burning up completely. The biggest can strike the ground, some forcefully enough to dig craters. In 2013, a relatively small rock exploded over the Russian city Chelyabinsk, releasing a shock wave that injured hundreds of people, mainly as windows shattered into flying glass.

But all that represents a tiny fraction of the downpour. Scientists say most of the cosmic material is remarkably small — barely the width of a human hair. Known as micrometeorites, they rain down on the planet more or less continuously but have proved remarkably hard to find. Some bits are so small and lightweight that they drift down to the Earth’s surface without melting.

The dust consists of tiny remnants from the solar system’s birth, including debris from the lumps of dirty ice known as comets and from ages of smashups among planets and the big rocks known as asteroids. While most of the particles are interplanetary in nature, some contain grains of matter from outside the solar system, or true stardust. Their diversity makes them excellent windows on the cosmos.

Scientists have found micrometeorites mainly in the Antarctic, remote deserts and other places far from civilization’s haze. Starting in the 1940s and 1950s, investigators tried to find them in urban areas but eventually gave up because of the riot of human contaminants.

Significantly, it turns out that specialists trying to establish the cosmic origins of the tiny specks have tended to examine their chemical signatures rather than their overall appearance. That left a large opening for Mr. Larsen.

Matthew J. Genge, one of the Geology paper’s four authors and a senior lecturer in earth and planetary science at Imperial College, London, used an electron microprobe at the Natural History Museum in London to determine the chemical makeup of Mr. Larsen’s finds and confirm their cosmic origin.

In an interview, he said that, over all, the grains that survive the atmospheric plunge and land on the Earth’s surface add up to more than 4,000 tons annually, or more than 10 tons a day. “He’s done a valuable thing in classifying the contaminants,” Dr. Genge said of Mr. Larsen’s work. “It has wide-reaching implications.”

Donald E. Brownlee, an astronomer at the University of Washington who helped establish the field, called Mr. Larsen a true citizen scientist whose work will aid the global hunt for the tiny specks.

“Your car is covered with cosmic dust,” Dr. Brownlee said. “We inhale this stuff. We eat it every time we eat lettuce. But normally, it’s incredibly difficult to find.”

Mr. Larsen came to what he calls Project Stardust as a jazz guitarist in Norway, perhaps known best as the founder of Hot Club de Norvège, a string quartet. His group helped spur the global revival of gypsy jazz.

As Mr. Larsen tells the story, he was an enthusiastic rock collector as a child but did so well as a musician that he set aside his early scientific ambitions. Then, in 2009, at a country house outside Oslo, he was cleaning an outdoor table when a bright speck caught his eye.

“It was blinking in the sunlight,” he recalled. He touched the fleck. “It was angular in some way, kind of metallic but so small — a tiny dot.”

Intrigued, Mr. Larsen suspected it was a cosmic visitor and began to look for more. He collected dust samples from Oslo and cities around the globe, moonlighting as a scientist while vacationing or touring with his jazz group. He took samples from roads, roofs, parking lots and industrial areas.

Put indelicately, he collected hundreds of pounds of dreck — sludge from drains, gutters and downspouts, the dregs of civilization that most people try to avoid.

“Still, I didn’t find a single micrometeorite,” he recalled. “It was very frustrating.”

Mr. Larsen then changed tactics. Rather than looking exclusively for cosmic dust, he taught himself how to classify the dozens of different kinds of earthly contaminants, starting a process of elimination that slowly narrowed the candidates and raised the chances that some tiny fraction of the urban debris might turn out to belong to the cosmos.

The breakthrough came two years ago. In London, Dr. Genge studied one of the gathered particles — from Norway, not Timbuktu — and confirmed that it was indeed a traveler from outer space. Mr. Larsen quickly identified hundreds more.

“Once I knew what to look for, I found them everywhere,” he said.

In the Geology paper, the scientific team reports the discovery of about 500 micrometeorites — collected mainly from roof gutters in Norway — and tells of the detailed analysis of 48 of the extraterrestrial specks. The team includes two of Dr. Genge’s students, Martin D. Suttle of Imperial College and Matthias Van Ginneken of the Université Libre in Brussels.

The team described the cosmic dust as the youngest collected to date, because gutters tend to get cleaned fairly regularly. Also, urban surfaces are recent arrivals in the global landscape compared to polar ice and ancient deserts.

In his travels, Mr. Larsen recently visited with Michael E. Zolensky, an extraterrestrial materials scientist in Houston at the Johnson Space Center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. They not only talked shop but also went up to the roof of the large building that houses rocks from the Apollo moon program.

“It was pretty cool,” Dr. Zolensky said. “The curation building is now a collector of cosmic dust.”

In an interview, Mr. Larsen described his method — sorting through the contaminants in a process of elimination — as “something that anybody can do. It could and should become part of teachings in schools, an aspect of citizen science.”

Dr. Brownlee of the University of Washington agreed. He said that, while many schools try to find cosmic dust particles in programs meant to make science classes more inviting and accessible, few if any succeed. “It could help a lot,” he said of Mr. Larsen’s method. “For education, it’s pretty cool.”

Dr. Genge of Imperial College said Mr. Larsen’s techniques, if adopted widely, might also open a new lens on the cosmos.

The gravitational pull of the planets, he noted, appear to tug on the dust clouds of the solar system and slowly change their orbits. He said a wave of new terrestrial finds could help scientists better map the clouds, raising more questions for science about the structure of the universe.

“I consider my microscope a telescope,” Dr. Genge said. “It can give you a pretty big picture.”


An Eclipse, a Comet, and a Full Moon all Coming this Friday Night: Prepare for the Endtimes!


From USA Today.  Skywatchers will enjoy a rare space triple-header Friday night and early Saturday morning: A “penumbra” lunar eclipse during the full “snow” moon — and the flyby of a comet.

Here’s a look at what you will see if you set your eyes to the night sky:

Penumbral lunar eclipse

Eagle-eyed skywatchers will see a “penumbral” lunar eclipse Friday evening during the full moon.

Not as spectacular — or noticeable — as a total lunar eclipse, this rather subtle phenomenon occurs when the moon moves through the outer part of Earth’s shadow (known as the penumbra), according to

The outer shadow of the Earth blocks part — but not all — of the sun’s rays from reaching the moon, making it appear slightly darker than usual.

The exact moment of the penumbral eclipse is 7:43 p.m. ET (6:43 p.m. CT, 5:43 p.m. MT and 4:43 p.m. PT), NASA said.

The eclipse will be visible from Europe, Africa, western Asia and eastern North and South America, NASA reports.

About 35% of all eclipses are of the penumbral type.

Full “snow” moon

As required during any lunar eclipse, the moon will be full Friday night. And this month it’s nicknamed the “snow” moon.

According to the Farmers’ Almanac, full moon names date back to Native Americans in the northern and eastern U.S. Each full moon has its own name.

“The tribes kept track of the seasons by giving distinctive names to each recurring full moon,” the almanac reports. “Their names were applied to the entire month in which each occurred.”

Calling February’s full moon the “snow” moon is right on target: On average, February is the USA’s snowiest month, according to data from the National Weather Service.

The Farmer’s Almanac reports some tribes referred to February’s moon as the “hunger” moon, because harsh weather conditions made hunting difficult.

Comet 45P

A few hours after the eclipse, Comet 45P, which has been visible after sunset for the past two months through binoculars and telescopes, makes its closest approach to Earth, when it will be “only” 7.4 million miles away, NASA said.

Look to the east around 3 a.m. Saturday morning, where it will be visible in the sky in the constellation Hercules. Binoculars or a telescope could be helpful. Watch for a bright blue-green “head” with a tail.

It will be visible in various points of the night sky until the end of February, according to NASA. If you miss it, don’t worry: It will return again in 2022, said Jane Houston Jones of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


Happy Hour on Comet Lovejoy

NASA writes about a new report from French scientists on observations made of Comet Lovejoy as it passed around the sun early this year:

“‘We found that comet Lovejoy was releasing as much alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak activity,’ said Nicolas Biver of the Paris Observatory, France, lead author of a paper on the discovery published Oct. 23 in Science Advances.”

Here’s the first part of the NASA news release. Cheers!


Researchers Catch Comet Lovejoy Giving Away Alcohol

Comet Lovejoy lived up to its name by releasing large amounts of alcohol as well as a type of sugar into space, according to new observations by an international team. The discovery marks the first time ethyl alcohol, the same type in alcoholic beverages, has been observed in a comet. The finding adds to the evidence that comets could have been a source of the complex organic molecules necessary for the emergence of life.

“We found that comet Lovejoy was releasing as much alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak activity,” said Nicolas Biver of the Paris Observatory, France, lead author of a paper on the discovery published Oct. 23 in Science Advances. The team found 21 different organic molecules in gas from the comet, including ethyl alcohol and glycolaldehyde, a simple sugar.

Comets are frozen remnants from the formation of our solar system. Scientists are interested in them because they are relatively pristine and therefore hold clues to how the solar system was made. Most orbit in frigid zones far from the sun. However, occasionally, a gravitational disturbance sends a comet closer to the sun, where it heats up and releases gases, allowing scientists to determine its composition.

Comet Lovejoy (formally cataloged as C/2014 Q2) was one of the brightest and most active comets since comet Hale-Bopp in 1997. Lovejoy passed closest to the sun on January 30, 2015, when it was releasing water at the rate of 20 tons per second. The team observed the atmosphere of the comet around this time when it was brightest and most active.

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.


Rosetta Makes Unexpected Discovery About Comets

Last month I posted again about the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission. The spacecraft, after chasing Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko for ten years, finally caught up with it.

Here’s the comet:


Now scientist have announced this finding from Rosetta:

European Scientists Conclude That Distant Comet Smells Terrible

A European spacecraft orbiting a distant comet has finally answered a question we’ve all been wondering: What does a comet smell like?

“It stinks,” says Kathrin Altwegg, a researcher at the University of Bern in Switzerland who runs an instrument called ROSINA that picked up the odor.

The European Space Agency has posted a full rundown of the comet’s BO on its website. The mix includes ammonia (NH3), hydrogen sulphide (H2S), formaldehyde (CH2O) and methanol (CH3OH).

Of course, anyone visiting the comet would be wearing a spacesuit (on top of that, the sense of smell is notoriously numb in space). Nevertheless, taking a whiff of this comet would be like sharing a horse barn with a drunk and a dozen rotten eggs.

“It’s quite a smelly mixture,” she says.

The Rosetta mission has gotten to within just a few miles of the comet. Close enough to whiff its coma, or atmosphere, and conclude that it really stinks.

Why didn’t we know comets smelled so bad before?

“That’s mostly because we’ve never been that close to a comet,” says Altwegg. The Rosetta mission is now just 5 miles from the comet’s surface.

It’s just like a person: You can’t really get a good sense of a person’s body odor until you’re right up next to him.

These chemicals are also clues to how the comet — and maybe how our solar system — formed. And for that reason, Altwegg doesn’t really mind the stench.

“It’s a little smelly, but at the moment it’s a lot of fun to go to work every morning,” she says.

Fun for now. But that could change. The comet is currently getting closer and closer to the sun. And like anything you leave out in the sun too long, it will soon start to smell even worse.

ISON, We’re So Over You: 73 More Comets in 2014!

For anyone who’s feeling jilted by Comet ISON’s poor showing in 2013, not to worry: 2014 will see 73 more comets (73!) looping around the Sun.

Comet Lovejoy, Dec. 31

Comet Lovejoy, Dec. 31

The Sky Live Blog lists all these comets, including the dates of their perihelion passages and expected maximum brightness, here.

According to Universe Today, four of the stand-out comets will be Comet Lovejoy (visible now), Comet PanSTARRS, Comet Oukaidmeden, and Comet Siding Spring.

Below is just a sampling of all of 2014’s comets–the names of the first 15 and the dates they’ll be closest to the Sun.

Comet 87P/Bus; Jan 7
Comet 293P/Spacewatch; Jan 9
Comet P/2007 R2 (Gibbs); Jan 11
Comet C/2013 H2 (Boattini); Jan 23      
Comet 129P/Shoemaker-Levy 3; Feb 6
Comet P/2013 N3 (PANSTARRS); Feb 11
Comet 169P/NEAT; Feb 12
Comet 292P/Li; Feb 13
Comet C/2013 P2 (PANSTARRS); Feb 17
Comet P/2013 TL117 (Lemmon); Feb 18
Comet C/2012 X1 (LINEAR); Feb 21
Comet 294P/LINEAR; Feb 26
Comet P/2007 H3 (Garradd); Mar 3
Comet 52P/Harrington-Abell; Mar 7
Comet P/2013 W1 (PANSTARRS); Mar 8

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 ISON Update: “We Shouldn’t Be Scared of the K-Word”

A recent article from, “Will Comet ISON Be Another Kohoutek PR Disaster?

Comet Kohoutek is the star of my new novel THE NIGHT OF THE COMET. Discovered in 1973, Kohoutek was hyped as the “comet of the century,” and it ignited a brief worldwide craze for all things cometary.

This year’s Comet ISON has also been called another comet of the century, a “dream comet.” It was spotted last September by a couple of amateur astronomers, and is expected to be at its brightest around Thanksgiving-time. Here’s its projected orbit:


Recently, however, astronomers have begun scaling back their predictions for ISON. It might not really be another comet of the century, they caution, wary of being burnt again as they were by Kohoutek, which turned out to be one of the most disappointing comets in history, a complete dud.

But no matter how big or small of a showing it makes, astronomers say Comet ISON will still be a treasure trove of science, an “extraordinary event.”

Says one astronomer, Casey Lisse of the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University:

“We shouldn’t be scared of the K-word.”