Memories of Comets Past

I've seen and photographed a little more than 100 comets.  Not all of them have been interesting, but some have been great and spectacular.

The first comet I ever saw was Ikeya Seki, back in 1965.  My Dad woke me up early one morning and we drove out toward the northern edge of Greenville, SC.  I suppose Dad thought the elevation of the foothills of the Piedmont would benefit us, and it did.  We had a great view.

As we headed out, Dad said, "I think that's it up there," but I said "That's just the spot light from J.M. Fields." Fields was a Walmart of the day, and it promoted itself with a huge spotlight that could be seen all over town -- sort of a Bat Signal without the bat. 

But unlike the spot light from J.M. Fields, this one was stationary.

It was the great comet Ikeya Seki, also known as C/1965 S1, or 1965 VIII or 1965f.  It had been independently discovered by Kaoru Ikeya and Tsutomu Seki.  It was first observed as a faint object on September 18, 1965, and early calculations showed that on October 21st it would pass within a mere 450,000 km above the Sun's surface.  The heat from the Sun would melt a lot of the ice, causing a spectacular tail. 

It did not disappoint.

The first astro-photo I took was of this comet.  With a telephone pole in the foreground to demonstrate the apparent size of the comet in the sky over Greenville, SC, this photo has been published several times.  (The growth around the bottom half of the telephone pole?  That's kudzu, which is a familiar curse in the American South).

File:Comet C 1965 S1 Ikeya-Seki.jpg 

Comet Bennett, also known as  C/1969 Y1 (old style 1970 II and 1969i), was a nice, bright comet easily seen in the skies without a telescope or binoculars.  It was discovered by John Caister Bennett on December 28, 1969.  It reached perihelion on March 20, passing closest to Earth on March 26, 1970.

Comet Bennett on April 4, 1970
Ware Shoals SC
Photo by Pittendreigh

 Comet Kohoutek will forever be remembered as the dud of the 1970s.  Yet, for all of its failure to live up to the expectations, it was a fairly bright and somewhat interesting comet.

Comet Kohoutek
January 27, 1974
Photo by Pittendreigh and Doug Stevens

Comet West appeared in 1976 and was a beautiful early morning object in the March skies.  It was glimpsed ten minutes before sunset on February 25, 1976, making it the last daylight comet sighting until McNaught in 2007.  However, only astronomers seemed to be aware of this comet.   The mainstream media all but ignored Comet West, probably because of the failure of Comet Kohoutek to live up to predictions two years earlier.

 Comet West
Seen from Simpsonville SC
Photo by Pittendreigh

Halley's Comet, also was a bit of a disappointment for the 20th Century observers.  This was not the appearance it had when Mark Twain was born, or later when he died.  My father looked at it through my telescope and said, "I've been waiting all my life to see that damned disappointment?"

 Comet Halley 
Photographed by Pittendreigh

Comet Hyakutake was a fun comet!  I was able to make lots of interesting photos over several days in 1996.  It was only brightest for a few days, but it was spectacular.  

 Comet Hyakutake

Photographed at the New Bethel Presbyterian Church
Piney Flats Tennessee
Photo by Pittendreigh

 Comet Hale–Bopp  C/1995 O1) was perhaps the most widely observed comet of the 20th century.  It was the brightest one that had been seen for decades and was visible to the unaided eye for a record 18 months!  

 Above and below:  Comet Hale Bopp
Photographed by Pittendreigh 
In the Everglades near Miami FL

73P/Schwassmann–Wachmann, also known as Schwassmann–Wachmann 3, was not a naked eye comet.  It was not particularly bright.  However, because the comet appeared to pass in the field of view of the Ring Nebula the comet was an interesting challenge to photograph for a couple of hours in 2006.

In 1995, 73P began to disintegrate.It was seen to break into four large pieces labeled 73P-A, B, C, & D.  By March, 2006, there were at least 8 fragments and in the following month, dozens.  It appears the comet may eventually disintegrate completely and cease to be observable.  It is now known to have split into at least 66 separate fragments.

 Above and below - the breaking up of a comet

Comet McNaught, also known as the Great Comet of 2007 or C/2006 P1, was discovered on August 7, 2006, by astronomer Robert H. McNaught.  It was the brightest comet in over 40 years.  It was easily seen in the Southern Hemisphere, but for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere the visibility was brief.  I was fortunate to capture several images of the comet on a cold January evening at Sunset as it appeared over the skyline of Atlanta, Georgia.

 Comet McNaught, 2007, 
Photographed by Pittendreigh 
Atlanta Skyline, 
Seen from Stone Mountain

Comet Holmes, 17P/Holmes, was discovered by the British amateur astronomer Edwin Holmes on November 6, 1892. Although normally a very faint object, Holmes became notable during its October 2007 return when it temporarily brightened by a factor of about half a million, in what was the largest known outburst by a comet, and became visible to the naked eye.

The outburst of 2007 made Holmes a fascinating comet to observe.  On October 23 to 24, 2007, the comet went from magnitude 17 to 2.8 in a period of about 42 hours, making it visible to the naked eye.

The cause of the outburst is not definitely known. The huge cloud of gas and dust may have resulted from a collision with a meteoroid, or perhaps a build-up of gas inside the comet's nucleus breaking through the surface.

In October, viewers from Earth 
were looking straight down the tail of the comet
 rather than the profile view of December.

Comet Tuttle (8/P) shows up every 20 years, and is not usually that spectacular, however in December, 2007, the comet came in the same field of view as M33 Galaxy, making for a nice little Kodak Moment.

 Comet Tuttle and M33

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