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About The daily Nebraskan. ([Lincoln, Neb.) 1901-current | View Entire Issue (Nov. 29, 1973)
'Dirty snowball' Kohoutek to glow, not dazzle
By Steve Arvanette
Astronomers are calling it the "comet of the
century," although a recent report said Comet
Kohoutek (pronounced Kah-HOE-tek) may not be as
bright as first predicted when it rounds the sun after
Kohoutek now is visible in the early morning with
the naked eye. According to Don Taylor, UNL
associate professor of physics, the best viewing of the
comet would be about 45 minutes before sunrise.
Lincoln sunrise currently is about 7:30 a.m.
Taylor said those wanting to view Kohoutek
should look about 20 degrees above the southeast
horizon. Binoculars would be helpful in seeing the
comet's tail, he said.
As Kohoutek speeds toward the sun, a glowing tail
will grow behind it. Comets are composed of ice, gas
and dust. But as they approach the sun, the "dirty
snowball," as they have been called, begins to
evaporate and glow. Radiation from the sun and solar
wind, a stream of gas ejected from the sun, drive the
dust particles behind to form the tail.
Kohoutek will grow brighter in the morning sky
until about Christmas, when it will be too close to the
sun for easy viewing. On Dec. 28, Kohoutek will have
rounded the sun and begin its long trip into the outer
It was believed Kohoutek took somewhere
between 35,000 and 75,000 years to complete its
orbit. Observations during the past two weeks
indicate the gravitational pull of the planets has
caused the comet to change its path somewhat.
Ralph Palsson of the Astronomical Society of the
Pacific said the slight change means Kohoutek won't
return for millions of years. He also was quoted as
saying Kohoutek seems to be comprised mostly of
dust, which means it won't be as bright as first
According to Sky and Telescope magazine,
Kohoutek has just passed the earth's orbital path.
But since Kohoutek actually will be closer to the
earth on its outward trip, it will be brightest just after
it rounds the sun.
Kohoutek has aroused much enthusiasm in
astronomers for three reasons its large size, its close
approach to the sun, and its unprecedented
The story began last March 7, when Lubos
Kohoutek, an astronomer at the Hamburg
Observatory in Bergendorf, West Germany, was
photographing some asteroids he had discovered
several years earlier.
Examination of the photographs made with the
observatory's 31 -inch telescope revealed a faint, hazy
spot. Kohoutek assumed he had discovered a comet
but was unaware of the impact of his discovery until
further study was made.
It was officially tagged comet 1973f, meaning it
was the sixth comet to be discovered during the year.
However, in recent months it has gained such names
"comet of the century" and the "Christmas comet."
It is sure to be one of the greatest astronomical
sights to be seen by man this century, surpassing even
Halley's comet, which last circled the sun in 1910.
That comet is not due back again until 1986,
following a steady 76-year orbital cycle.
But as happens on each return of Halley's comet,
Kohoutek will be severely drained of its dust and
gassy matter by such a close brush with the sun.
According to Taylor, who teaches astronomy at
UNL, there are three basic reasons why astronomers
are concerned with comets.
One of the reasons for studying comets, he said, is
that they may help unlock some of the secrets about
the creation of the solar system. Comets travel from
the fringes of the solar system and their contents can
be analyzed when they are vaporizing through
The other area of comet study is how magnetic
fields affect the comet's path as it travels through
"The main interest in comets is for their own
sake," Taylor said. "They are unusual. We don't see
them that often."
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