Comet Swift-Tuttle blazes across the sky in this 1992 false-color image from the Spacewatch telescope in Arizona. Amateur astronomer Lewis Swift and U.S. Navy astronomer Horace Tuttle discovered the comet independently in July 1862. Later, it was discovered that the comet is the source of the Perseid meteor shower in August. The comet visits the inner solar system once every 130 years or so; its last visit was in the early 1990s. [Jim Scotti/Spacewatch]
To the people of Cortland, New York, Lewis Swift was a bit of an oddity. Most nights, for a little while after sunset and before sunrise, the hardware merchant used a small telescope to scan the skies close to the Sun.
In 1862, though, his status changed from “oddity” to “celebrity.” On July 16th, Swift discovered a comet — one that went on to stage a great show. And today, the comet is better known as the parent of August’s Perseid meteor shower.
Swift was born on Leap Day of 1820. At age 13, he fractured his hip in an accident, so for the next couple of years he devoted more time to study than farm work. In 1850 he developed an interest in microscopes. And a few years later, he built his first telescope.
Swift became fascinated by comets after viewing a brilliant one in 1858, and making it the topic of his first scientific paper.
When Swift first saw the comet of 1862, he wasn’t sure if it was new or one that had been seen before. A few days later, though, he heard that astronomer Horace Tuttle had reported the discovery of the same comet Swift had seen. Swift quickly reported his own observations, so the comet was named Swift-Tuttle in their honor. More about the comet tomorrow.
After 1862, the comet disappeared from view for more than a century. Swift discovered several more comets, and eventually became a full-time astronomer, studying everything from eclipses to galaxies — a career built on the discovery of a comet.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012
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