[meteorite-list] Comet ISON Not Related to Comet Kirch of 1680

From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Mon, 22 Jul 2013 12:56:54 -0700 (PDT)
Message-ID: <201307221956.r6MJusGI023765_at_zagami.jpl.nasa.gov>


NASA Comet ISON Observing Campaign
ISON Image of the Week
Let History Be Our Guide?
July 22, 2013

In 1680, Kirch's comet lit up the nighttime skies, and was even briefly
visible in broad daylight. With a remarkably similar orbit to that of
Comet ISON, can we expect a similar show come November?

This week we chose not to highlight Comet ISON, but instead a completely
different comet: C/1680 V1 (Kirch). Are we already out of ideas, and bored
with Comet ISON? Of course not! Read on...

Discovered in 1680 (hence the C/1680 designation), comet C/1680 V1 (Kirch),
was first spotted by German astronomer Gottfried Kirch in early November,
1680, and holds the accolade of being the first comet to be discovered
via a telescope! It also seems to hold the accolade as one of the most
aliased comets in history, going also by the names of "The Great Comet
of 1680", "Kirch's Comet", and "Newton's Comet"! (The latter is rather
misrepresentative, as Newton himself played no part in the discovery,
but he did use its orbit to demonstrate his new laws of orbital mechanics
when they were published in the famous Principia several years later.)
Just a couple of weeks following discovery, C/1680 V1 passed just 0.42AU
(~62-million kilometers, or ~39-million miles) from Earth, and just a
couple of weeks after that, on Dec 18, 1680, grazed a mere 0.006AU (~900,000km,
550,000miles) from the Sun -- not that far above the solar surface, and
reputedly visible during broad daylight! As it raced away from the Sun,
it peaked in brightness by the end of the year with a spectacularly long
and thin arcing tail that spanned much of the nighttime skies before finally
receding from view in early 1681. Sounds great, but what's the link to
Comet ISON? Technically there isn't one... but for a while we really thought
there was, and despite there not being a link, Kirch's Comet may still
hold valuable clues to Comet ISON's fate...

If we take a glance at the orbital elements for both Comets ISON and Kirch,
we see startling similarities. Both comets approach to within ~0.4AU of
Earth, and the perihelion distance (closest approach to the Sun) is 0.006AU
for Comet Kirch versus 0.012AU for Comet ISON. The so-called "longitude
of the ascending node" is 277-degrees for Kirch and 295-degrees for ISON.
The "argument of perihelion" is 351-degrees versus 360-degrees, and orbital
inclination 61-degrees versus 60-degrees for Kirch and ISON, respectively.
These numerical values define the path through space on which these comets
travel, and their differences of just a few degrees here and there are
not necessarily as big as they sound. In astronomy, we use these values
to "link" comets together and determine relationships between them, or
determine if we're just seeing the same comet on a new revolution around
the Sun, and when we see so many values that are so similar, we sit up
and take notice.

So when we saw the orbital parameters for Comet ISON, we immediately thought
that maybe the two comets were related. We knew that they were not the
same comet, because Kirch's Comet is periodic, with an orbital period
on the order of ten-thousand years, but the possibility certainly existed
that these two objects were once part of the same object that fragmented
into small pieces some time in the very distant past. We see this all
the time with Kreutz Sungrazing comets, so we know it happens. Comet C/2011
W3 (Lovejoy), for example, is strongly believed to be a consequence of
the fragmentation of the "Great Comet of 1106", and itself a fragment
of a much earlier near-Sun fragmentation even centuries before that. Thus
we began to look very closely at ISON's orbit to determine if it was indeed
a relative of the Kirch's Comet, with our focus primarily on the orbital
parameter of "eccentricity". This value tells us whether the comet's orbit
is an ellipse, or a parabola. That is, is it following a closed loop orbit
and thus periodic (and gravitationally bound to our Sun), or is it on
an "open" path, and thus comes in to the solar system only once and leaves
never to be seen again?

For a while the situation was perched on a knife-edge, but with enough
observational data we eventually came to the conclusion that Comet ISON
is in fact a dynamically new comet, fresh in from the Oort Cloud -- our
solar system's vast and distant reservoir of icy bodies. So again you
may rightly question the relevance of C/1680 V1 (Kirch) to C/2012 S1 (ISON).
It might not be much, but it is this: Comet Kirch followed a remarkably
similar orbit through space at a remarkably similar time of the year,
albeit 333-years before ISON, and approached a remarkably similar distance
to Earth and a roughly similar distance from the Sun at perihelion (they
were both Sungrazers). So while we may not be comparing apples to apples
here, it could be that Kirch's comet is one of the only indicators we
have of how Comet ISON might look come November/December. Admittedly we
don't know if they are of similar size, and C/1680 certainly approached
closer to the Sun, but ISON has the wild-card factor that comes with being
fresh from the Oort Cloud! As we have already posted on this site, we
have no "fresh-Oort-Sungrazer" example that we know of to which we can
compare ISON. So the best we can do is look to other Sungrazers, and for
the closest examples we can find, and see how they hold up.

If Comet Kirch is anything to go by, astronomers are looking at a very
happy end to the year!
Received on Mon 22 Jul 2013 03:56:54 PM PDT

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