SPECIAL REPORT: Kohoutek: Comet of the Century

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Some day there will arise a man who will demonstrate in what regions of the heavens the comets take their way; why they journey so far apart from the other plan ets; what their size, their nature.

— Seneca

That prophecy, written by the Roman philosopher and statesman nearly 2,000 years ago, may soon be fulfilled. Growing brighter every morning in the predawn sky, one of the largest comets ever seen by man, its elongating tail stretching across millions of miles of space, is streaking toward a Christmas rendezvous with the sun. Later this month and through most of January, the giant comet should provide an extraordinary celestial spectacle, and may well help answer the questions that Seneca raised so long ago.

The fiery visitor is called Kohoutek (after its discoverer, Czech Astronomer Luboš Kohoutek— pronounced Loo-bosh Ko-hoe-tek); it promises to rival and perhaps surpass in brightness Halley's comet, which last appeared in 1910 and will not be seen again until 1986. By the time Kohoutek emerges from its passage behind the sun early in January, its tail should be full grown, a glittering streamer extending across as much as a sixth of the evening sky. There is some chance that Kohoutek will not live up to all its billing — comets are notoriously unpredictable. Some split into several parts as they approach the sun; others disintegrate completely or simply fail to achieve their predicted brilliance. But Harvard Astronomer Fred Whipple, the dean of U.S. comet watchers, has high hopes for Kohoutek's performance. It "may well be the comet of the century," he says.

Until recently, professional astronomers, more concerned with planets, distant galaxies, quasars and pulsars, left the observing of comets largely to amateurs. Comets were "bagfuls of nothing," sniffed Percival Lowell, the turn-of-the-century astronomer who made a career of observing Mars. Since that putdown, scientists have learned to take comets more seriously—as primordial chunks of matter left over from the birth of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago. Thus Kohoutek, which was spotted first at the Hamburg Observatory last March, offers a splendid opportunity for observers to learn more about the drama of creation. Indeed, because the comet was discovered so long before its close approach to the sun, there has been time for elaborate preparation. Kohoutek may well be the most intensely scrutinized celestial object in the history of astronomy; it will be tracked and studied by thousands of scientists and an incredible array of instruments ranging from the 200-in. telescope on Mount Palomar to the sophisticated devices aboard Skylab and other spacecraft.

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