Comet West

Comet West was a truly spectacular comet, sometimes considered to qualify for the status of "great comet".It was discovered photographically by Richard M. West, of the European Southern Observatory, on August 10, 1975, and reached peak brightness in March 1976, attaining a brightness of -3 at perihelion. During peak brightness, observers reported that it was bright enough to study during full daylight.

Comet West was what 1973's Comet Kohoutek should have been. Kohoutek was overhyped and underperforming, and West was the exact opposite. If anything, it was underhyped, because no one wanted to get burned again making ambitious predictions. As a result, Comet West was largely unheralded outside the astronomical community.

The comet has an estimated orbital period of 559,000 years.  During the comet's run into the inner solar system for the first time in 500,000 years, the nucleus of Comet West was observed to split into four fragments as it passed within 30 million km. of the sun. The first report of the split came around 7 March 1976 12:30UT, when reports were received that the comet had broken into two pieces. These two fragments remained the only pieces until Steven O'Meara, using the 9-inch Harvard Refractor, reported that two additional fragments had formed on the morning of 18 March.

The breakup was one of very few comet breakups observed from historical times by the 1970s. Recently, comets Shoemaker-Levy 9, Schwassmann-Wachmann-3 (73/P), C/1999 S4 LINEAR, and 57/P du Toit-Neujmin-Delporte, have been observed to disintegrate. When observed, many were stunned, but none more so than the discoverer, Richard Martin West. The comet broke into pieces when some distance from the sun. It exploded into four pieces, and those were scattered. Later, two pieces were spotted, and studied intently by astronomers.

While I did not observe Comet West myself, it was the comet that  got me started. I joined the Black River Astronomical Society in the fall of  1976 and the guys were abuzz with excitement over the still recent apparition of Comet West. They showed me pictures and pencil drawings and one of the members, Carl Peck, an avid comet chaser, gave a talk on it.

I remembered being amazed at his knowledge of comets and something he said hit home with me. Basically, he said that comets were transient creatures that roamed the very depths of space, some since the beginning of time. Comets, he went on,  held the key to all life in the universe and actually contained the seeds of life.

Every comet, he said, was a once in a lifetime event in that every comet is totally unique unto itself. Even periodic comets, he explained, returning again and again, exhibit totally different behaviour over each individual apparition.

That talk ignited a fire in my young brain, and I determined that night, so many years ago, to observe every comet within my powers.