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.
The Discovery of Comet West
On November 5, 1975 Richard West was examining photographic plates taken by the Schmidt telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. During West’s examination of the photos, he discovered a comet in the constellation Microscopium. At the time, it was 2.98 AU from the Sun and had a small dust tail. The comet, which became known as Comet West, had a magnitude was 14 or 15 at the time of discovery.
Additional information about Comet West
After the discovery Brian Marsden, based on other observations of the comet, calculated that it would pass closest to the Sun on February 24, 1976 and be visible from Earth in March with a magnitude of around 5. This was, of course, only three months after Comet West was first spotted. If Comet West happened to be on a collision course with Earth, we would have had little time to prepare.
It turned out that Comet West was much more spectacular than Marsden first predicted. The comet reached a brightness of –3 during its closest approach to the Sun, which made it brighter than Venus in the morning sky. Comet West was one of the brightest comets in the 20th century and one of the brightest comets in history.
It was also among a handful of comets that have been observed breaking into pieces. This fragmentation was reported on March 7, when the comet divided into two pieces, and on March 18, when two additional fragments were created.
Comet West was didn't get media coverage, but its spectacular, curved tails rising before the Sun in March of 1976 was an once-in-a-lifetime event visible to the naked eye. Well, maybe it was a twice-in-a-lifetime, since Comet McNaught had spectacular, visible curved tails as well in 2007.
Orbital Period and Halley's Comet Next Visit
Estimates of Comet West’s orbital period range between 254,000 and 558,000 years. Since Comet West’s most recent closest approach to Earth and the Sun was in 1976, don’t waste your nights looking at the night sky for this comet.