The Top 10 Best Comets of All Time

The Top 10 Best Comets of All Time

Comet ISON Oct 08 2013.jpg

Comet ISON in 2013 was going to be a super comet many said. Unfortunately it disintegrated travelling around the Sun (seen above in the image taken by Adam Block from the Mount Lemmon Skycentre on the 8th Oct 2013). So having been robbed by the Sun of our super comet, which comets have lived up to the title. The comets below are a selection of some of the most impressive examples that have ever been recorded. Ranging from the late 1600s right through to the 21st century. 

1. The Great Comet of 1680:

This comet is particularly interesting for the fact that its orbit is very similar to that of the ISON comet, making the suggestion that the two are in some way related. Also this was the first comet in history to be discovered with the use of a telescope, first seen by the German astronomer Gottfried Kirsch. The comet reached perihelion on the 7th December, passing the sun at a distance of 744,000 miles. By February 1681 the comet could no longer be seen with the naked eye. This comet was immortalised by the Dutch artist Lieve Verschuier. The artist’s picture is below.

Verschuier1680 Great comet.jpg

2. The Comet of 1744:

This comet, known as the Comet De Cheseaux was first sighted on November 29th 1743 as a rather dim object of around fourth magnitude. However, it rapidly brightened as it came closer to the sun. By mid February the Comet was displaying two tails and shortly after on the 27th February 1744 it reached a magnitude of -7, becoming visible during the day. It eventually passed the sun at a distance of 20.5 million miles. Records say that on the morning of 6th March it appeared in the sky trailing six tails, resembling a Japanese fan. 

3. The Comet of 1843

Passing only 126,000 miles from the sun, this comet belonged to the Kreutz Sungrazer comet group, known for producing some of the most impressive comets ever recorded. On the 27th February 1843 it passed the sun at the closest point and was widely viewed in full daylight. As the comet moved away from the sun it began to fade, although the tail continued to grow. The most amazing thing about this comet is that the tail grew to be 200 million miles in length, if the head of the comet was placed in the position of the sun then the tail would reach beyond Mars! 

Great Comet of 1843.jpg

4. The Super Comet of 1882

Another member of the Kreutz Sungrazer Group, this comet is possibly the brightest ever seen! First sighted by Italian Sailors in the Southern Hemisphere on the 1st September, it reached perihelion on the 17th. As it passed the sun at 264,000 miles observers recorded that the brightness was scarcely fainter than the sun, suggesting an estimated magnitude of something between -15 and -20. It is considered as a super comet, far brighter than a great comet.

Great Comet of 1882.jpg

5. January Comet of 1910

First sighted on the 13th January in South Africa, this comet was mistaken by many people to be Halley’s comet. However the director of the Transvaal Observatory, Robert Innes, pointed out that this was Drake’s comet. It remained visible in the day for a few more days and was visible at night in the Northern hemisphere for the remainder of January. It is likely that most people who thought they saw Halley’s comet in 1910 actually saw this comet, that appeared a few months earlier. 

Comet 1910 A1.jpg

6. The Skjellerup-Maristany Comet of 1927

This comet was first sighted in early December but unfortunately the orbital geometry meant that it could not be seen in a dark sky from either the Northern or Southern hemisphere. Despite this it reached an impressive magnitude on the 18th December and was visible during daylight hours. As it began to fade it trailed a tremendous tail that stretched up to 40 degrees in length.

7. The Comet Ikeya-Seki of 1965

This comet was the brightest of the 20th Century and also a member of the Kreutz Sungrazer comet group. It was reported by Japanese observers, who first saw it, to be 10 times brighter than the full moon! Following perihelion the comet could be observed in daylight by simply blocking the sun with your hand. As it began to fade its tail reached up to 75 million miles through space. This is a picture of the comet taken by NASA.

Ikeyaseki tail 30Oct1965.jpg

8. Comet West of 1976

Comet West was first discovered by the Danish astronomer Richard West whilst working at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. It passed the sun within 18.3 million miles on the 25th February and was then sighted 17 hours later. This sighting, 10 minutes before sunset, was the last daylight comet sighting until the McNaught comet in 2007. The media ignored Comet West and subsequently many people missed seeing it.


9. Comet McNaught 2007

This comet was first seen by the astronomer Robert H. McNaught in Australia, becoming the 31st comet to take his name. Due to the comet’s orbit it appeared very low in the sky and was often shielded from view by trees and buildings surrounding amateur astronomers. Scientists measured the size of the comet using data from the Ulysses spacecraft, making it the biggest comet measured to date, as normally they would have only looked at the length of tail. The comet taken by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos can be seen here.



10. Shoemaker-Levy 9 1994

The Shoemaker-Levy 9 collided with Jupiter in 1994 and scarred the surface. This was the first time that we have seen a large collision like this in our solar system. This incident presented the question of what would happen if a comet was on a collision path with Earth, leading to two Hollywood films in the 90’s ‘Armageddon’ and ‘Deep Impact’.  The comet was torn apart by Jupiter’s gravity and split into the comet seen below taken by NASA, ESA, and H. Weaver and E. Smith (STScI). 

Shoemaker-Levy 9 on 1994-05-17.png

Each fragment impacted into Jupiter and the whole violent event was witnessed here on Earth. The picture below taken by NASA shows the incredibly large scars left behind by the impacts.

Jupiter showing SL9 impact sites.jpg

The Top 10 Best Comets of All time are a useful insight into the history of observing comets and hopefully you have found them interesting. So now we can only wait with excitement to see just how bright the ISON super comet will get, how long the tail will be and how long it will remain visible for. Hopefully the 10 comets above will have inspired every enthusiast to prepare to make a possible sighting of ISON. With luck, the comet will be visible to the naked eye but here is a nice pair of binoculars if you wanted to look at the comet more closely.

These are the best ones to date, but when will we see a comet like this again?

Find more on: Observing the Night Sky

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