Sunday, February 22, 2009


My Great Comets

Hale - Bopp in the dawn...
What’s a Great Comet? What you or me say one is, muchachos. “Great Comet” is not some well-defined category established by the IAU (they ain’t had much luck with that kind of thing lately anyhow), it is a casual term in use by the professional and amateur astronomy communities to refer to a comet so striking that it is “noticed” by the general public. Given the ambiguity inherent in that, the “What’s a great comet?” game inspires endless debate amongst those of us who follow the hairy stars. Was Hale Bopp Great? How about Hyakutake? Don’t ask me. But I do know my great comets, those that have had a major impact on me across five decades of observing.

C/1965 S1 Ikeya-Seki

I can’t remember if I had heard there was to be a grand comet in the sky before the newspapers and the local TV weathercasters began to buzz about Ikeya-Seki in the late summer of 1965. Maybe I saw something in Sky and Telescope or one of the mimeographed amateur astronomy newsletters I gobbled when I could get my hands on one. One thing is sure: little Rod didn’t know much about comets. I’d marveled at pictures of Halley in the few astronomy books I owned or found in Kate Shepard Elementary’s library (I particularly favored a drawing that showed Bronze Age tribesmen fleeing in terror from a Halley that filled the sky), but that was it. I just assumed Great Comets were something that happened every few centuries or so.

In other words, I was a wet behind the ears novice, having just acquired my first telescope the previous spring. I soon got edumacated, though, as even in those disconnected times a Great One on the way meant nobody with access to a TV set or a newspaper could miss hearing a lot about comets. The word coming out of the three TV channels we had in those dark ages was that in late October, Sun grazing Ikeya-Seki, being touted as “ten times brighter than the Sun," would round our star and put on a tremendous show in the morning skies.

Man alive! Was astronomy always like this? I hardly turned around and there was yet another cosmic spectacle aborning: Solar and Lunar eclipses, grand conjunctions, and now a Great Comet. It seemed that way, anyhow. Maybe because in those supposedly simpler times we (astronomers and non-astronomers) were more easily impressed. Maybe because we were less distracted. Especially us kids. What did we do for entertainment? Get up a game of softball in the backyard, play army (or spacemen), drag out some toys, read a book, or watch the family’s single black and white TV if there was something good on.

We could also see the skies a little bit, if not a whole lot, better in Possum Swamp back then. Even in the mid-1960s, the Milky Way was not starkly visible, but it was visible nevertheless—and we noticed it. Without much else to do, we were content to spend the waning hours of a midsummer day, when a sweet dusk had come and gone, just before the Moms hollered us for the night, lying out on a freshly mown lawn and looking up at the stars in their countless and mysterious hordes.

If you look back at the weather reports for the third week in October of 1965, one sad thing you will notice is that most of the eastern part of the country was blanketed in clouds. As you might expect, Possum Swamp down on the Gulf Coast was not immune. Hell, then as now late October is still close to the peak of Hurricane Season. I had my hopes, though, and one morning, probably a day or two past “the best,” I got my chance.

As a sprout, I was anything but an early riser, refusing to get out of bed and get ready for school until the very last minute, so it would be quite a trick to rouse myself at 4 o’clock in the a.m. to catch Ikeya-Seki as it rose barely ahead of ol’ Sol. Or maybe I was excited enough that it wouldn’t be. I had jumped up for one of NASA's early morning Gemini launches without being prodded out of bed by my Big Ben alarm clock or Mama. I surprised myself on Comet Morning by waking early for once. I was also surprised to find Mama and Daddy up ahead of me, wanting to see the spectacle for themselves they said. Mama allowed as how we could have breakfast “after the comet,” so out we trotted into the still warm late October pre-dawn.

With me came—of course—my trusty Tasco 3-inch reflector. Why? I was aware Ikeya-Seki was more an object for the naked eye or binoculars (all I had was an ubercheap 77 cent plastic pair from the discount store toy department, but I brought ‘em out nevertheless). Maybe I wanted a close up of the comet’s head. Or more likely I just wanted the scope out there with me because I didn’t see how you could do astronomy without a telescope. Anyhoo, we stood in the middle of the front yard and looked to the East, as countless other people were doing in Montgomery, Birmingham, even cosmopolitan Atlanta, and all across these United States every morning of the comet’s passage—most fruitlessly because of the weather. Me and the folks were amazingly lucky as, despite some scattered clouds, the sky was reasonably clear as we squinted at the eastern horizon, which was clear of trees and houses and clouds after about 10 degrees.

What a disappointment. At first, anyhow, since we saw absolutely nuttin’—zero, zip, zilch. Then as we stared, a phantom something appeared before our wondering eyes. Vague, milky, Milky Way-like, a thin inverted broom shape of celestial cobwebs. Even in my ignorance, I was aware (I think so, anyhow) that comets do not zip across the skies like meteors, no matter what I saw in the sci-fi pictures they showed down to the Roxy, but I still expected a little more than this. And yet, and yet…the more we looked, the more we saw and the brighter the comet seemed to become despite the rapid approach of dawn and Ikeya-Seki’s frustratingly low altitude.

The most amazing thing for me other than the fact that I had just bagged my first comet? The impact it had on adults. Not only were Mama and Daddy outside with me and my scope, they were as excited about seeing Ikeya-Seki as I was. You see, I didn’t imagine any grownups—beyond professional astronomers (for me, anybody in Sky and Telescope was a “professional astronomer”)—would be much interested in things that went on in the sky. For some weird reason, I had the idea amateur astronomy and backyard telescopes was mostly a kid thing. I changed my mind when a crowd began to develop in our front yard. Folks driving by in the dawn on their way to early jobs spotted us with the telescope and, in those friendlier times, thought nothing of turning into our street, hopping out and saying “Howdy, y’all lookin’ at the comet?”

C/1973 E1 Kahoutek

Following my initiation with Ikeya Seki, I caught a few comets over the next decade or so. Nothing very dramatic, though. No, the next big comet event in my amateur astronomy career was The Cosmic Watergate. The what? Comet Kahoutek was different from the usual visitor in that he was discovered when pretty far out, 74 million miles, some seven months before perihelion. That meant astronomers, amateur and professional, had a long, long time to plan their observations, chatter about The Newun, and interact with the public. The result was that some of us became a mite overenthusiastic. Was that bad? No, not necessarily, not always, not when you can deliver the goods, but in this case it was a big mistake.

With over half-a-year before perihelion, the astronomical community’s chatter about Kahoutek had plenty of time to percolate out into the larger culture, and these rumblings began describing something the network anchors were soon dubbing a spectacular holiday show. Kahoutek was amazingly bright considering how far out as it was, and that meant “big.” The path of the hairy star would send it within the orbit of Mercury, placing it at it’s best for Earthly viewing in early January 1974. Based on the comet’s predicted orbit, it was initially thought Kahoutek was a first time visitor from the Oort Cloud (probably not the case, it was later determined) and, as a virgin, would stage an especially impressive performance, putting Ikeya-Seki to shame. Probably even outdoing the legendary 1910 apparition of Halley.

Shortly after its discovery, though, Kahoutek started doing a “Pluto” on us. Every time more observational data came in, the calculated size of the comet was reduced. It was also not brightening anywhere near as much as expected as it neared perihelion. As December came in, most astronomers began to expect something in the “OK,” not spectacular, not Great category. There was some disappointment in the astronomical community ranks, but not much. It still looked as if it would be a superior comet by our standards, and anybody who’s been in the comet game for long knows the beasties are as unpredictable as cats. The surest path to real disappointment is expecting them to do what you want them to. Pity, yeah, but not a big deal. Or it wouldn’t have been if the public had got the word as to our reduced expectations.

Thing was, though, they didn’t. The fact that Kahotek’s passage coincided with the holiday season probably had something to do with that. People were busy with Christmas preparations and not paying much/any attention to the few cautionary reports that made it to Huntley-Brinkley (actually, "Chancellor-Brinkley" by then, I think) or The Possum Swamp Register. Most of the media kept pushing Kahoutek. Maybe they didn’t get the word on the comet’s demise as a spectacle, or, if they did, maybe the story about New Year’s Comet Fireworks was just too good to let die. This was compounded by the fact that many news outfits were (quite naturally) relying on NASA rather than the astronomical community for information about the comet.

With only Skylab on which to pin its dreams, the space agency, which had recently been gutted by a President who was not only distracted by his personal problems (ahem), but who also didn’t much like the space stuff to begin with, mounted an insanely over the top PR campaign for Kahoutek. This would return the public’s attention to space from the Watergate mess and the fallout from the debacle in the jungles of Southeast Asia where it had been firmly fixed for a while. When it became evident Kahoutek would be a bust (for the public), some of the NASA flacks did try to dampen expectations, but, like the Titanic, it’s almost impossible to change the course of a massive federal agency in a hurry, looming iceberg or no.

Comet mania continued unabated and began to turn a mite ugly. This shouldn’t have surprised us in the astro-world. The chronicles of the 1910 apparition of Halley make clear it was accompanied by scare stories of cosmic proportions. Like the threat of worldwide asphyxiation due to “cyanide” in Halley’s tail (apocryphal—I hope—reports tell of fear-maddened folks committing suicide to escape Halley’s Agonizing Death Gas). This kinda junk is not at all unusual—we’d see more with Hale Bopp twenty years later. In fact, near as I can tell, “comet panic” has almost always been part of the passage of any Great Comet. In Kahoutek’s case, the scare was perpetrated by one David Berg, the big cheese of a religious cult known as the Children of God, who was much given to whacked-out fundamentalist-style prophecies. For this comet, he predicted widespread devastation, and, as Kahoutek came closer, he began squealing about DOOMSDAY and even THE ENDTIMES.

When early January and our best shot at Kahoutek had come and gone, the spit predictably hit the fan. Despite an amazing performance as far as amateur and professional astronomers were concerned, a magnitude briefly as bright as 0 (-3 as it rounded the Sun), a tail 25 degrees long, and a visible anti-tail, the public was not impressed. The fainter than touted magnitude and fairly rapid dimming combined with the public’s ignorance about comets to ensure howls of dismay. Despite all the hoopla, most folks didn’t have a very good idea what a comet should look like, with many of ‘em actually expecting something blinding to flash across the heavens as they stared up at any random time. Even those who had a little more sense than that were right put out that this thing was “no brighter than a dadgummed star!”

Most outraged were the print and TV media. The late night hosts of the time, Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, had a field day with The Cosmic Watergate (in Johnny’s case, it was all in fun as he was a rather accomplished amateur astronomer). It’s not at all out of line to say the failure of Kahoutek to live up to misplaced expectations dealt NASA a serious blow (though Skylab got some great pictures of the comet). To this day, the media has not forgotten nor forgiven the way they were made to look foolish by the astronomers. Played for saps, they thought. During the Hale-Bopp apparition, The New York Times was still whining about Kahoutek and how they had been cheated.

Me? I didn’t give a hoot ‘n holler what the NYT thought about Kahoutek. I was transported. This was quite an upgrade from the small visitors I’d looked at in my Newts over the previous decade. It wasn’t blindingly bright by the time I saw it—maybe magnitude 3 or so—and the tail did not stretch on forever, but was respectable at maybe three or four degrees in length at least. In a telescope, the head was fascinating. I learned a lot about comets as I marveled at Kahoutek with eyes, binoculars, and scopes from my backyard in the university student housing ghetto. That wasn’t all I learned—in retrospect, anyhow.

To this day, I still wonder if things might have worked out differently for me if I’d grabbed a bottle of Chianti and led my pretty young wife, Linda, out into the dark for a look at the Great Comet on one of those nights rather than leaving her inside watching The Partridge Family while I hunted the little visitor. All these years hence, I bitterly regret that, and it makes my heart hurt. The past, however, is what it is, apparently immutable, and, all things considered, everything worked out well for me over the ensuing decades—one, long, lonely stretch notwithstanding. Kahoutek? It is and will remain known as the flop of the century no matter what I or anybody else who actually saw it says.

C/1975 V1 West

I thought Kahoutek was good? Hoo-boy, I hadn’t seen nothin’ yet. For reasons I’m not quite sure about, Comet West did not register with the public, barely registered with a lot of amateur astronomers, and, so, ain't a Great One in that sense, but it sure as hell did register with me and with at least some o’ my astro-buddies. Many of us who saw it will, in fact, tell you West put even Hale-Bopp to shame. Not only was it brighter than the Boppster at mag -3, it was blessed, due to the geometry of its passage, with a much more impressive tail (Bopp’s was stubby and foreshortened, West’s was an impressive and long fan).

My West story? For once I lucked out. When West hit the predawn skies with a fury in 1976, I was in a good position to appreciate it, North Texas, where there’s nothing but tumbleweeds, jackrabbits, and the occasional cow as far as the eye can see. Well, and Air Force bases, of course. I was attending the U.S. Air Force’s ICBM School at Sheppard AFB near the smallish town of Wichita Falls, Texas. Initially I was concerned about the typically bright lights of the AFB spoiling my view, and made preparations to drive offbase past the strip bars and cheap motels and tattoo parlors that crowded around Sheppard, and into the dramatically dark prairie (desert?). I needn’t have bothered; given the excellent horizons on base and the natural brilliance of West, I could just stand in the Missile School’s parking lot and drink the thing in. Bright, with a broad and long dust and ion tail, West was something to behold. My fellow amateurs who missed West for one reason or another probably get tired of me saying it, but my verdict is “Yeah, significantly better than Hale-Bopp.”

Why didn’t more people, amateur astronomers and the general public alike, notice West? You got me, pards. It for sure vindicated the comet watching game, or should have, even for Joe and Jane Sixpack. I mean, this puppy was—so some folks said—bright enough to see in broad daylight (I didn’t see it in the daytime). Maybe the reason it was mostly ignored was, again, poor ol’ Kahoutek. It had soured newsmen on astronomy to the extent that there was hardly any reporting in the mass media on this real spectacle. Even when West was at its peak and obviously “good,” mentions were brief. I guess the comet just wasn’t RELEVANT. All I heard was a local Texas weatherman searching for offhand patter say his viewers might want to poke their heads out for a look at “another Kahoutek” (his actual words). I sure enjoyed West. Wish you had been there.


Then along came that most famous of Comets, Halley. What should have been the comet to end all comets got off to a famous start. Beginning two or e’en three years before perihelion, the local malls began to fill up with every sort of comet gimcrack imaginable. There were oodles of comet books. Comet posters. Comet T-shirts. Even comet wine (you can imagine). The excitement was palpable, and by the time Steve O’Meara recovered the thing visually (at magnitude 19.6 for Christ’s sake) a year before its 1986 arrival, there was a genuine comet craze in full swing. Hell, I even saw an SCT on sale in the Service Merchandise (jewelry/discount/what-have-you) store in cotton-pickin' Gautier, Mississippi. Too bad the CAT in question was Bausch and Lomb’s nasty little 4-incher. And too bad my (ex) wife gave me a real hard look when it appeared I was gonna plop it in our shopping cart, anyway.

Many of my fellow amateurs were definitely going comet crazy, glomming onto the “comet scopes” the telescope makers began grinding out. Some, like Celestron’s aptly named Comet Catcher were surprisingly good, but many, like the Focal Comet-o-Scopes in K-Mart, were surprisingly dreadful. Me? I stuck with the Super C8 Plus I had at the time and the BX-issue Tasco 10x50s I’d bought for West. Something told me this might not be a very good time to buy a new scope.

I was also skeptical about how much good the comet would do for amateur astronomy in the long run. Sure, the public was engaged and excited. They were buyin’ scopes and joining astronomy clubs in record numbers. B-U-T. What if the comet turned out to be a bust? More like, what would happen when the comet turned out to be a bust. As I figgered it would be, I’m afraid.

The geometry of the comet's 1986 return wouldn’t just be sub-par; it would be the worst for all the Halley's recorded apparitions. I believed it would be a good/average comet as us amateurs judged ‘em, nothing more. Certainly not a West or even an Ikeya-Seki. Add-in the light pollution, which hadn’t been a problem in 1910, and what the public would see would not come close to the glorious turn-of-the-century images plastered over the boob tube and the newsstands. One night trying to find (and see) the thing with their new f/10 SCTs and long focal length Tasco refractors would, I was afeared, turn off our new recruits to astronomy forever. My brother and sister astronomers all knew this, of course, but many, amateurs and professionals, chose to ignore the facts of the matter: “But this is COMET HALLEY.”

Y’all know me (too well, many o’ you, I suspect). I usually enjoy being right. Not this time. And right I was. Not only was Halley not that bright, it was at its brightest when it was next to impossible to see from the Northern Hemisphere (especially for the poor souls up yonder in Yankeeland). The result was many new skywatchers weren’t just unimpressed as Halley floated through the dim stars of Aquarius and Capricornus glowing at a puny magnitude 3, they didn’t see anything at all. Lotsa brand new scopes hit the closet or the flea market and garage sale tables. A lot went back to the stores and manufacturers. ("Y’all sold me this dadgummed thing so I could see the comet, and she don’t show me nothin’!”)

That was probably the only good thing to come out of the whole sad affair—plenty of telescopes on sale at bargain prices. Or maybe not so good. Even those scopes made by reputable manufacturers were sometimes downright punk—if not junk. These “Halley Scopes,” which linger on in the astronomy marketplace even today like the ghost of Banquo, were made in a hurry by burned-out or newly hired workers, and even the Celestrons and Meades—much less the Tascos and Jasons—are suspect.

By Summertime, most astronomy clubs saw meeting attendance numbers plummet as the new recruits’ need for help with those telescopes and interest in astronomy evaporated like the morning dew. Thus did our collective dreams of amateur astronomy world domination collapse like a house o’ cards made from wet toilet paper. One thing I do wonder…what happened to all the comet souvenirs the stores simply could not sell no matter how they marked them down? Is there a Halley Landfill? Or some Halley Warehouse (like the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark)?

My “Halley story” is a simple one. Twenty-three years ago this month I spent several mornings at the beach, which offered the best south-southeast view in this neck of the woods, admiring Halley’s Comet. No, it wasn’t West, but with this one the historic angle was what impressed, and that turned out to be enough for me. Not being as emotionally wedded to Halley’s prospects for expanding amateur astronomy as many of my friends were, I just enjoyed it. Actually, I probably enjoyed it most in the months before perihelion, watching a little fuzzball drift sedately through Taurus just before Thanksgiving 1985 from the (then) dark skies of southern Mississippi.

C/1998 B2 Hyakutake and the Bopp, C/1995 O1 Hale-Bopp

I won’t spend a lot of time regaling you with these two. Unless you are the greenest of novices, you well-remember how they delivered a one-two punch to our skies, even though it’s been (gulp) twelve years since HB sailed by.

I loved Hale-Bopp, but I loved Hyakutake even more. It was bright enough to study from Chaos Manor South’s (then relatively tree-free) backyard with an 8-inch. The detail in the nucleus was always interesting, sometimes weird-looking, and always flat-out amazing. What really took the cake was the pea-picking tail. A thin mother that extended 30-40-50-degrees or more. I vividly recall Miss Dorothy and I dropping the young Miss Beth off at a rehearsal for the community theatre play she was appearing in and driving into the Gulf Coast darkness. We wound up at a relatively light-pollution-free highway rest stop and just stared open mouthed…a night that was the inspiration for a poem I wrote when I was studying with Dr. Sue Walker (Alabama’s poet Laureate).

The public? Didn’t hear too much about Hyakutake from ‘em. We showed oodles of kids and parents the visitor at public star parties, but I don’t remember any Hyakutake snack cakes, or much note by the news media. Hale-Bopp? Now that was another story. What piqued the public’s interest initially, I don’t know. Maybe it was the cute/funky sounding name. That it would be BIG was hinted at early on by the fact that the public soon inverted this name, referring to the visitor as The Hale-Bopp Comet, making it their own, I reckon.

Why did they take to this one with such fervor? Maybe because it was discovered by two people who could almost have come from their ranks, an amateur astronomer (Bopp) and a semi-amateur astronomer (Hale), and that fact was widely publicized. What kept up their interest as the apparition progressed was the length of time Hale Bopp remained dramatically visible to the naked eye—an astounding 18 months. That and the weirdness that came to surround this Great Comet.

It began farcically enough, with a quasi-amateur astronomer announcing he had discovered a “star like object” following Hale-Bopp. It didn’t matter that what this person had “discovered” was several anonymous field stars and a hot pixel or two on a crude CCD image. Unfortunately, someone was listening. That someone was Marshall Applewhite, formerly the Bo of “Bo and Peep,” a marginally notorious early 1970s UFO-contactee-group/ministry (Space Brothers). “Peep,” Applewhite’s soulmate and former nurse (in guess what sort of hospital), Bonnie Nettles, had gone on to her reward (or whatever) a few years previously. Applewhite became convinced Hale-Bopp was a spaceship that would save him and his followers from the “wiping clean” of the evil ol’ Earthlings that HB, he thought, heralded.

I have been told that Applewhite purchased a Meade LX-200 in order to view the comet closeup, but returned it when he couldn’t figure out how to work it. He did figure one thing out, he thought: the way to “board” said spaceship—where Bo would undoubtedly be reunited with Peep—was by committing suicide. Which he proceeded to do via Phenobarbital, vodka, and a plastic bag. Not much note would have been made of this pathetic—or bathetic—end if this SOB hadn’t been able to convince thirty-eight members of the cult he was now calling “Heaven’s Gate” to do the same on that March of the comet’s flowering. But he did—spoiling the whole glorious spectacle a little bit.

The public and the media, I am sorry to say, just ate it up. You can imagine the tabloid scene at the Win-Dixie checkout lane. But mom and pop, in their defense, loved the comet too. We served him up to thousands of kids and adults, and their simple, pure excitement was a heady brew for us amateurs. For once, the comet merchants made out alright too. Telescope makers, still remembering how they had been burned a decade previously, played it fairly safe, but still sold plenty of scopes. There were not as many comet souvenirs for sale as for Halley, but there were still plenty, and for a while they were flying off the shelves. If it weren’t for the Heaven’s Gate downer (which us astronomers were, of course, not responsible for) it would have been a 100% happy comet experience for both astronomers and the public for once.

What do I remember most about this redeeming comet? I had plenty of wonderful evenings with Hale-Bopp, but what I probably remember best is the morning I snapped the picture at the top of this entry (with my trusty Pentax K1000—I was still suspicious of them newfangled CCDs). As that pitiless dame, Aurora, threw open the gates of dawn, the comet did not disappear. Still he hung like an overripe fruit in bright skies. More light. Still there. By the time I had to call it quits and head to work, I could still see HB as Sol was lifting himself over the rim of the world.


We waited twenty years between West and Hyakutake. Will we wait that long again for something that will impress the public and MSNBC? Hard to say, muchachos. Impossible to say. The sky is like Forrest’s fabled box o’ chocolates. You simply cannot second guess ol’ Urania. Just when you think we have a winner, she sends a Kahoutek. Just when you think we are in for a long dry spell she sends a Holmes.

Holmes? I don’t know if y’all think that one was Great but I shore did, and it even caught the public’s interest for a while in modest fashion. If you were stuck under the cloudy skies of lower Slobovia, and are wondering what “Holmes” was, I’ll tell ya: a great big surprise. 17P/Holmes is a normally sedate little wisp of a comet orbiting out between Mars and Jupiter. “Good” for him is normally about magnitude 17. Once upon a time, the comet brightened dramatically to about mag 5, which prompted its discovery back in 1892 by Edwin (not Sherlock) Holmes. Since then? Nada.

Fast forward to October 2007. Holmes was cruising sedately through the Perseus area at its accustomed magnitude of 17. These days, that’s easy to “see” with a CCD or see with a bigdob, but I don’t know that many amateurs—or professionals—much cared. Then something happened way out yonder. I began hearing on the blamed Internet that the comet was brightening. Dramatically. On a whim, I hauled my StarBlast out onto the streetlight-blasted front porch of Chaos Manor South and took a look. Surely not… But there it was. A weird little yellowish orb at mag 6 – 7.

That was just the beginning of the show. Not only did Holmes brighten to magnitude 3 or better, it inflated like a weird balloon loosed by some malevolent clown and sailed through our Northern skies. This went on for weeks and weeks with the comet being obviously non-stellar to the naked eye.

Before it was done, Holmes was nearabout the size of the Full Moon in our skies, making the coma-cloud in reality as large as the Sun. I watched the show every clear night and imaged it with a C8 and a Celestron NexImage webcam (from the front porch of Chaos Manor South, believe it or no; results at left). I had an outright spectacular view with 15x70 binocs from the dark skies of Chiefland that November. Great? “Once in a lifetime.”

There’ve been other Great Comets for me in the years since Hyakutake and The Bopp as well—if none that had a prayer of catching the public’s attention. Comet 73/P Schwassman-Wachmann broke up and scattered his brightly (well sorta) glowing pieces all over the sky. Comet Swan, C/2006 M4, put on a lovely show a couple of years back drifting though Hercules on Summer eves. Right now, we’ve got a wee one, C/2007 N3 Lulin, who, while he will never impress them dadgummed hillbillies at The New York Times, threatens to go “naked eye” from dark sites as he passes through Virgo. More Better Gooder? I can’t tell you when the next Real Good One will come along, muchachos. In a way that is part of the fun. The TV networks or even the astronomy mags cain’t neither. All you or me can do is, yes, KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES!

I was too young to remember Ikeya-Seki even being mentioned, and I certainly don't remember crowds on any lawn - Kouhoutek was a lot of fun and my first real view of any comet - West was a great spectacle even from suburban Atlanta, and I got my parents to take a look through my RV-6 and they were astonished and filled with questions! But it was Hale-Bopp that blew my mind, seen from darkest dark Missouri in a black sky - it was very easy to understand why them savages wuz fleein', Unc! (I remember that too in some dim corner of the mental attic). We have yet to see from Northern climes a true great comet, with a 100 degree tail and visible in daylight. Maybe that's the sign from the heavens we need to shake everyone up a bit.

I did see Comet Halley, from the parking lot of Carlsbad Caverns (the Park Service turned off the outside lights). Big fuzzball, but couldn't see a tail. Uneventful, but I can tell my grandchildren about it anyway.

Hale-Bopp, being visible for months, left a much bigger impression, since it was visible even in light polluted Albuquerque. The best view was the last, from a dark campground in southeastern New Mexico.
I saw Comet West in 1976 and it remains the most spectacular comet I have seen.

I'm surprised that that Comet Bennett C/1969 Y1 (old designation 1969i) isn't on the list. It was naked eye even from the Chicago suburbs, and had a prominent dust tail with binoculars. It was best in March 1970, and was the first comet I ever saw.
My first was IRAS-Iraki-Alcock in the early '80s. Was only visible for a few days (came very near to earth) and had no tail. But a friend called to tell me about it. I stepped outside, looked straight up - and there it was. Sure enough, the next day it was *far* from the same spot.

Several since. What a great hobby this is - thanks for the good memories as always, Unka Rod!
Love your Blog . What a great hobby this is - thanks for the good memories as always
So far I've seen the most important of them all to date, the big Kahoutek flop, didn't recall viewing West, but did take a glimpse at the fuzzy Halley which was pretty near to Venus and a friend had even mistaken it with Halley. Hale-Bopp was the best from the nineties which coincided with my trip to the Galapagos, so I could say I saw it from both hemispheres. Being an astronomy buff since I was a kid I had my Gilbert telescope along with me on starry nights. I still believe I witnessed a supernova exposion which went unaccounted for, but then who knows?? I also made it a point not to miss any of these celestial spectacles. But the most memorable one of all of them, and not because I was at a tender age was Ikeya-Seki in 1965, coincidentally at the height of the Vietnam war and the hippie revolution. There has never been a comet in my memory, as bright and colorful as this one. Perhaps it was the most "psychodelic" one I'be seen! It was as if the creator had taken a brush and streaked across the sky with colors and yeah, it was visible up till 8 in the morning. I remember going to school and still seeing it, wow!! I remember LIFE magazine even posted it in its covers and the Gemini space program made shots of it. There should be pictures of it in the old National Geographic Magazines. They said it will be back in another 2000 years. I have never seen any comet as bright and visible as this one. I doubt if there ever will be another one like this one. Truly, it was a once in a lifetime experience.
It's sad that comets have only began to be ranked relatively recently according to apparent magnitude. I wonder how something like Ikeya-Seki stacks up against the Great Comet of 1680 of 1106. has some good info on Ikeya-Seki and other comets.
Hi Rod,

I'm trying to find out where you got one of the images in this blog from.

Can you please email me at:

Thank you.
Hi Rod,

I'm trying to find out where you got one of the images used in this blog.

Can you please email me at:

Thank you
As far as I am aware, all the images are in the public domain. If that is not the case, feel free to contact me.
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