The Great Comet of 1861

The 19th century was a great time for sky watchers. Eight Great Comets appeared from Earth between 1811 and 1882, dazzling scientists and laymen, and inspiring artists and musicians. Probably the most beautiful was the Donati Comet of 1858, which became the first to be successfully photographed. Three years later, another dramatic comet appeared in the sky. The Great Comet of 1861 was extraordinary because it passed precisely in Earth’s orbit, and for two days the Earth itself was within the tail of the comet. As Earth plowed through the comet’s gas and dust, viewers had a strange view of streams of cometary material converging toward the distant nucleus. The tail also obscured the sun’s rays during the day.

The Great Comet of 1861, also known as C/1861 J1 or Comet Tebbutt. E. Weiss. drawing by


The Great Comet of 1861 was first observed by John Tebbett, a sheep farmer and amateur astronomer. On 13 May 1861, the young farmer, using an ordinary marine telescope, saw an obscure star in the constellation Eridanus. Tebbutt checked his astronomical charts but found no nebulae listed in the position. He speculated that it would be a comet but could see no tail. Tebbutt observed the object for the next several days, but found no apparent change in its position, until a week later he saw the object moving by about half a degree, confirming his initial guess.

Tebbutt sent a letter to the Rev. William Scott, government astronomer at the Sydney Observatory, announcing his discovery as well as a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald. This letter was published in the newspaper on 25 May 1861, the 27th birthday of the young farmer.

In those days communication between Australia and the rest of the world was slow. Before news of the discovery reached the Northern Hemisphere, the comet itself appeared in the northern skies. The first person to see it in England may have been William C. Birder of Clifton, Bristol, who wrote a letter to Bristol. Times On Sunday, June 30:

Sir – This morning at 2.40 am I detected a spectacular comet near the north-west horizon. It was visible by 3.20 pm… It appeared as bright as a cappella and was positioned favorably for comparison. It was surrounded by a fuzzy haze, but I saw no tail… Daylight ejected both the comet and Capella at almost the same time; That’s why your readers will take it as proof that this is a fantastic item.

That same day, Samuel Elliot Hawkins, a doctor from Guernsey, observed:

At 9 p.m. a large bright disc surrounded by a vague haze began to appear in the northwest horizon. At 9.40 it assumes, clearly to the naked eye, the character of a comet, with a large nucleus and fan-like tail that curves toward the zenith. It was permanently spectacular until sunrise the next morning – traveling with apparent speed, but slight degradation, from NW to NE

As summer approached and the days progressed, a strange sight was seen in the sky. E.J. Lowe in Beeston said, “The sky had a pale, auroral, glare-like appearance, and the sun was shining, but gave a weak light … the clock, evidence that the sensation of darkness even when the sun was shining was.” JR Hind told the Times in London; “There was a peculiar phosphorescence or illumination of the sky, which I attributed at that time to an auroral glare; it was remarked by other persons as something unusual”.

The change in the sky was caused by the passing of the comet’s tail to Earth, as explained by JR Hind. Times: “Allow me to draw attention to a circumstance related to the present comet … It seems not only possible, but also probable, that during the past Sunday, the Earth tailed at a distance of perhaps two-thirds of its length. Passed through. Through the nucleus”. writes:

At 6 p.m. on June 28, the comet’s nucleus was in the elliptical, about 13 million miles from Earth. If the tail had flown directly behind the comet, Earth would encounter it shortly after 10 p.m. on June 30. But the tail always lags behind the nucleus, and Hind estimated the amount of curvature of the tail and the direction of motion of the comet that Earth would have entered the tail on the morning of June 30; “Or, at any rate, it was certainly in an area that had been swamped with humic substance some time ago.”

The tail of the comet assumed a large fuzzy disc-like appearance about a quarter of a circle. On July 1 and 2, the tail was measured to be 118° wide. As the comet moved away from Earth, the tail grew longer, covering about half the sky.

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By mid-summer the comet was bright enough to cast a shadow, despite the fact that the nucleus was only a few degrees above the horizon. During the night of June 30 – July 1, 1861, the famous comet observer JF Julius Schmidt gazed in amazement at the Great Comet’s shadow on the walls of the Athens Observatory.

By mid-August the comet was no longer visible to the naked eye, but it was visible in telescopes by May 1862. An elliptical orbit with a period of about 400 years was calculated, which would indicate a past presence about the middle. Return to the 15th century and the 23rd century.

The Later Life of John Tebbutt

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John Tebbutt at his great-grandfather’s observatory on April 14, 2004 in Windsor, New South Wales. Photo: Carlo Thomas

The discovery of this comet launched young John Tebbutt as a celestial hero and introduced him to astronomers around the world. In 1864, Tebbutt built a small observatory and installed some instruments, including a 3¼-inch telescope, a two-inch transit instrument, and an eight-day half-second box-chronometer. Over the next forty years, Tebbutt published many high-quality observations of comets, minor planets, variable stars, eclipses and transits, and his reputation grew steadily. In 1881, Tebbutt discovered another comet. Although not as spectacular as the Great Comet of 1861, it showed his dedication and perseverance as a serious amateur astronomer. John Tebbutt was elected the first president of a branch of the British Astronomical Association established in Sydney. He retired from systematic astronomical work in 1904 at the age of seventy. John Tebbutt died in 1916. He was commemorated on the reverse side of the Australian one hundred dollar note.

, gallery of natural phenomena
# Discovery of the Great Comet of 1861 by Nick Lomb, John Tebbutt, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences
# Tabea Tietz, John Tebbutt and the Great Comet of 1861, science blog

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