Comets are as fickle as the weather — and just as hard to predict. A prime example is Comet Kohoutek. It was discovered in a picture shot 50 years ago today. And early predictions said it could become the “Comet of the Century.” Instead, it was a public relations bust. It became barely visible to the unaided eye, but most people never saw it.
Comets are balls of ice mixed with dust and rock. When they pass close to the Sun, they release gas and dust, forming a long, glowing tail.
The comet was discovered by Czech astronomer Lubos Kohoutek. It was farther away than any other comet yet seen, and it would pass quite close to the Sun in December 1973.
Based on its distance and brightness, astronomers forecast that it could become quite bright. But they warned that comets are hard to predict.
Even so, they showed a lot of enthusiasm, which caught on with the public and media. Astronomers observed the comet with telescopes on the ground, plus a Sun-watching space telescope and a craft en route to Mercury. NASA even delayed the launch of the final Skylab crew so the astronauts could watch the comet with telescopes on the space station.
Scientists detected water vapor coming off the comet, confirming long-held theories. And their studies suggested the comet was making its first close pass to the Sun. So while Kohoutek was a P.R. bust, it provided valuable insight into these hard-to-predict objects.
Script by Damond Benningfield