comets-book

You can now buy the recently released book, Fall of a Thousand Suns: How Near Misses and Comet Impacts affected the Religious Beliefs of our Ancestors. It is available through iBooks and Amazon.

 

This website only lists information on modern-day comets and meteor showers. The book, however, thoroughly investigates how specific ancient impacts and near misses changed religious beliefs around the world.

Brightest Comets in History

Comet Ikeya-Seki

 

A List of the Brightest Comets Ever

Coming up with a list of the brightest comets in history is a difficult task. Why? The scale to compare the relative brightness of stars was only developed around 140 CE. It was invented by Ptolemy. Ptolemy's scale ranged from an apparent magnitude of 0 (the brightest star) to 6 (the faintest star). Since Ptolemy, negative numbers were added to the apparent magnitude scale in order to include comets, planets, the Sun and the Moon. Each number represents an increase or decrease of 2.5 times in apparent brightness from Earth's perspective.

 

Comets weren't given, and ranked with, an apparent magnitude until the 20th century. So although a comet like X/1106 C1 could be the brightest comet in history, it's uncertain.

 

Ikeya-Seki Comet
This photo of Ikeya-Seki was taken in 1966. Credit: © Roger Lynds/NOAO/AURA/NSF

To add to the challenge of making a list of the brightest comets ever, comet observations by ancient astronomers are difficult to pinpoint. Prior to Ptolemy's invention there were, of course, bright comets in the skies. However, several cultures and ancient astronomers described these seemingly brilliant objects moving quickly against the stars as gods or monsters and didn't record the year or month in which they appeared. During the first millennium BCE, that perception changed. Chinese, Babylonians and Greeks stripped the religious significance from comets and observed them somewhat scientifically. Some ancient astronomers from these advanced cultures even recorded the movement of comets over the course of several days, but rarely the brightness.

 

Fortunately, we don't have to start from scratch in attempting to make a list of the brightest historical comets. The International Comet Quarterly (ICQ) did much of the work for us. ICQ "is a non-profit scientific journal devoted to the observation, news, and study of comets; it serves as a link between amateur and professional astronomers in the exchange of useful observations (following a standardized format) and news regarding all comets." Recently, ICQ compiled a list of the brightest comets going back to 1935. The comets without an asterisk are comets identified by ICQ. The comets with an asterisk have been added to their list.

 

For reference, the full moon has an apparent magnitude of -12.6.

 

 

Apparent Magnitude Formal Name Informal Name
-? X/1106 C1 Great Comet of 1106*
-15.0? C/1882 R1 Great Comet of 1882*
-10.0 C/1965 S1 Comet Ikeya–Seki
-? C/1843 D1 Great Comet of 1843*
-7.0 C/1910 A1 Great Comet of 1910*
-? C/1680 V1 Great Comet of 1680*
-7.0? C/1743 X1 Great Comet of 1744*
-6.0 C/1927 X1 Comet Skjellerup-Maristanny*
-5.5 C/2006 P1 Comet McNaught
-3.0 C/1975 V1 Comet West
-3.0 C/1947 X1 Southern Comet
-1.0 C/1948 V1 Eclipse Comet
-0.8 C/1995 O1 Comet Hale-Bopp
-0.5 C/1956 R1 Comet Arend-Roland
-0.5 C/2002 V1 Comet NEAT
0 C/1996 B2 Comet Hyakutake
0 C/1969 Y1 Comet Bennett
0 C/1973 E1 Comet Kohoutek
0 C/1962 C1 Comet Seki-Lines
0.5 C/1998 J1 Comet SOHO
1.0 C/1957 P1 Comet Mrkos
1.0 C/1998 J1 Comet White-Ortiz-Bolelli
1.7 C/1983 H1 Comet IRAS-Araki-Alcock
2.0 C/1941 B2 Comet de Kock-Paraskevopoulos
2.2 C/2002 T7 Comet LINEAR
2.4 C/1982 U1 Halley's Comet
2.4 17P Comet Holmes
2.5 C/2000 WM_1 Comet LINEAR
2.7 C/1964 N1 Comet Ikeya
2.8 C/2001 Q4 Comet NEAT
2.8 C/1989 W1 Comet Aarseth-Brewington
2.8 C/1962 A1 Comet Ikeya
2.9 153P C/2002 C1 Comet Ikeya-Zhang
3.0 C/2001 A2 Comet LINEAR
3.3 C/1936 K1 Comet Peltier
3.3 C/2004 F4 Comet Bradfield
3.5 C/2004 Q2 Comet Machholz
3.5 C/1942 X1 Comet Whipple-Fedtke-Tevzadze
3.5 C/1940 R2 Comet Cunningham
3.5 C/1939 H1 Comet Jurlof-Achmarof-Hassel
3.5 C/1959 Y1 Comet Burnham
3.5 C/1969 T1 Comet Tago-Sato-Kosaka
3.5 C/1980 Y1 Comet Bradfield
3.5 C/1961 O1 Comet Wilson-Hubbard
3.5 C/1955 L1 Comet Mrkos
3.6 C/1990 K1 Comet Levy
3.7 C/1975 N1 Comet Kobayashi-Berger-Milon
3.9 C/1974 C1 Comet Bradfield
3.9 C/1937 N1 Comet Finsler

 

 

 

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