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Comet Flop

December 26, 2013

Forty years ago this week, Czech astronomer Lubos Kohoutek was talking to the people with the best view of a comet he’d discovered a few months earlier — the astronauts aboard the Skylab space station.

KOHOUTEK: It is a great pleasure for me to greet you as the first human beings studying a comet from outer space.

Comet Kohoutek had been touted as the comet of the century — a visitor that would outshine everything except the Moon at Christmas of 1973. Instead, the comet fizzled. It was barely visible, and few members of the general public ever saw it. Even now, astronomers keep Kohoutek in mind when they discuss the possible appearance of a new comet, such as ISON, which was scheduled to make its closest pass by Earth today.

Despite the bad PR, Kohoutek was a scientific hit. Astronomers organized a worldwide campaign to study it with space- and ground-based instruments.

By far the best view came from Skylab. The final flight to the space station had been timed so the crew could study the comet. The astronauts used telescopes designed to study the Sun to snap hundreds of pictures, and an instrument left over from the Apollo days to measure the comet’s ultraviolet light. And on December 30th, astronauts Edward Gibson and Gerald Carr observed it during a spacewalk.

SKYLAB: Hey, I can see the comet! Lookit, right out there — see it? Holy cow, yes! Oh, yeah, beautiful! Very wide, broad tail.

Unfortunately for everyone else, though, you had to be high above Earth’s atmosphere to enjoy the view.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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