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The Great Comet of 1811, formally designated C/1811 F1, was a comet that was visible to the naked eye for around 260 days, a record it held until the appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997. In October 1811, at its brightest, it displayed an apparent magnitude of 0, with an easily visible coma.

Discovery

The comet was discovered March 25, 1811 by Honoré Flaugergues at 2.7 AU from the sun in the now-defunct constellation of Argo Navis. After being obscured for several days by moonlight, it was also found by Jean-Louis Pons on April 11, while Franz Xaver, Baron Von Zach was able to confirm Flaugergues' discovery the same night.

The first provisional orbit was computed in June by Johann Karl Burckhardt. Based on these calculations, Heinrich Wilhelm Matthäus Olbers made a prediction that the comet would go on to become extremely bright later that year.

Observations

From May-August, the comet's position made it difficult to spot because of its low altitude and the evening twilight. Both Flaguergues and Olbers were able to recover it in Leo Minor during August, Olbers noting a small but distinct tail, consisting of two rays forming a parabola, when viewing through a comet seeker. By September, in Ursa Major, it was becoming a conspicuous object in the evening sky as it approached perihelion: William Herschel noted that a tail 25° long had developed by October 6.

By January 1812, the comet's brightness had faded. Several astronomers continued to obtain telescopic observations for some months, the last being Vincent Wisniewski at Novocherkasskmarker, who noted it as barely reaching an apparent magnitude of 11 by August 12.

The Great Comet of 1811 was thought to have had an exceptionally large coma, perhaps reaching over 1 million miles across - fifty percent larger than the Sun. The comet's nucleus was later estimated at 30-40 km in diameter and the orbital period was calculated at 3,757 years (later adjusted to 3,065 years). In many ways the comet was quite similar to Comet Hale-Bopp: it became spectacular without passing particularly close to either the Earth or the Sun, but had an extremely large and active nucleus.

Allusions in culture

The Great Comet of 1811 seems to have had a particular impact on non-astronomers. The artists John Linnell and William Blake both witnessed it, the former producing several sketches and the latter possibly incorporating it in his famous panel The Ghost of a Flea.

At the mid-point of War and Peace, Tolstoy describes the character of Pierre observing this "enormous and brilliant comet [...] which was said to portend all kinds of woes and the end of the world". The comet was popularly thought to have portended Napoleon's invasion of Russia (even being referred to as "Napoleon's Comet") and the War of 1812, among other events.

The year 1811 turned out to be particularly fine for wine production, and merchants marketed 'Comet Wine' at high prices for many years afterwards.

Astronomers also found the comet a memorable sight. William Henry Smyth, comparing his recollections of the Great Comet of 1811 to the spectacular Donati's Comet, stated that "as a mere sight-object, the branched tail was of greater interest, the nucleus with its 'head-veil' was more distinct, and its circumpolarity was a fortunate incident for gazers".

References

  1. Kronk, G. W. ' Cometography - C/1811 F1 (Great Comet)', accessed 26-11-08
  2. Burnham and Levy, Great Comets, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p.53
  3. Olsen, Pasachoff and Pillinger, Fire in the Sky, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp.120-121
  4. Olsen et al., p.138
  5. Moore, P. The Data Book of Astronomy, CRC, 2000, p.233
  6. Smyth, in Kronk, G. W. Cometography: A Catalog of Comets, II, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p.27


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