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C/1882 R1
(Great September Comet)


     The earliest observations are not first-hand accounts. J. G. Galle (1894) wrote that the comet was seen on 1882 September 1 at the Gulf of Guinea and at the Cape of Good Hope. The likely times in Universal Time (UT) would be September 1.2 for both observations. W. T. Lynn (1903) reported the earliest observation was made in Auckland, New Zealand, on 1882 September 3. The likely time in UT was September 2.7. B. A. Gould (Cordoba) reported in the 1883 January 5 issue of the Astronomische Nachrichten that he was informed of the comet on September 6, and that the informant had seen it in the morning sky on September 5. The likely time in UT was September 5.4. The informant claimed the comet was as bright as Venus with a brilliant tail. Gould added, "Inquiry showed that it had been seen for several days by employees of the railroad and other persons whose duties required them to rise before daylight." Another observation was reported in the October 1882 issue of the Sidereal Messenger, which simply noted that the comet was seen from Panama on September 6. This comet was observed on September 6.8 by members of the crew of the steamer Caraki. It was subsequently reported to H. C. Russell (Sydney Observatory) on September 7 by Springwell, the chief officer of the steamer.
     The first astronomer to observe the comet was W. H. Finlay (Cape of Good Hope, South Africa) on September 8.16, which was also an independent discovery. He was then on his way home from Royal Observatory after observing an occultation of 5 Cancri by the moon. He said the comet was a conspicuous object with a large head, a nucleus of magnitude 3, and a tail about a degree long. He returned to the observatory to make observations before sunrise. David Gill of the same observatory sent a notice to the Astronomer Royal. Additional independent discoveries were made by J. Tebbutt (Windsor, New South Wales) on September 8, Joseph Reed (on board the H. M. S. Triumph, just south of the Cape Verde Islands) on September 10, and L. Cruls (Rio de Janeiro) on September 12. Tebbutt said the nucleus was "large and brilliant", while the tail was about 3° to 4° long. Cruls said the comet was visible to the naked eye and surmised it was probably the expected comet Pons of 1812.

Historical Highlights

  • The comet was heading toward perihelion when discovered and steadily moved toward the sun and morning twilight in the days that followed; however, instead of becoming lost in the dawn sky, the comet continued to be followed. Reed said the crew of his ship saw the comet on September 12 and 13. He noted, "the comet was visible for only a few minutes before sunrise; the twilight prevented my determining the length of the tail, but it appeared to extend through an arc of two or two and a half degrees. The whole of the coma is very brilliant, the nucleus surrounded by a still brighter ring; the tail was not curved." On September 13, L. A. Eddie (Grahamstown, South Africa) saw the comet shortly after it had risen above the horizon. He said that in the strong twilight it appeared "as a brilliant but narrow band of ruddy light, terminating in a very bright nucleus, equalling Jupiter in brilliancy and apparent size." He added that the tail was straight and about 12° long. On September 15, Eddie said the nucleus shone with a light equal to Jupiter's. On September 16, Eddie said his 9.5-inch telescope revealed "the nucleus appeared less sharply defined on its preceding boundary, and the breadth of the coma was greater on the northern side than on the southern. The tail seemed to spread out for a short distance behind the comet, and it was darker in the centre, as if split open." Gould said the comet was visible in the finder throughout the day.
  • The comet's increase in brightness was so great that it became easily visible in broad daylight for more than two days. On September 16.98, Tebbutt saw the comet about 4° west of the sun "and moving fast towards that luminary. The head and the tail for about a third of a degree were well seen." On September 17.17, Eddie saw the comet rise about 14 minutes before the sun and said it had further increased in size and brightness. The tail was then noted as about 8' long. He said the comet remained visible throughout the day and continued to show an overall length of about 1°. He noted, "So apparent was it to the naked eye, that one had but to look in the direction of the Sun when it could immediately be seen without any searching." He also looked at it with his 9.5-inch telescope and said, "The nucleus appeared as a solid globe with a white light surpassing that of Venus when viewed in the daytime. The coma and tail for a short distance behind the head were also very brilliant. There was but little coma preceding the nucleus, so that the nucleus appeared as situated at almost the extremity of the tail. The coma was bounded on the margins by a denser stream of light than that composing its interior portion, and the northern side was narrower and brighter than the southern, but the southern extended further behind the nucleus than the northern." J. P. y Ferrer said the inhabitants of Reus, Spain were astronished by the appearance of this comet September 17.34. He noted that the comet was 1.5° west of the sun and was so brilliant it could be seen through light clouds. Eddie also noted that the comet continued to approach the sun throughout the day so that by September 17.51 there was some difficulty in being able to spot it. Because of approaching clouds, Eddie last saw the comet on September 17.61 when his 3-inch refractor (50´) revealed it about 14' from the sun's edge. On September 17.45, A. A. Common (Ealing, England) independently discovered the comet with a 6-inch helioscope during a routine search for comets near the sun, which he began shortly after the announcement of the eclipse comet of 1882 May 17. He said the nucleus was "large, bright, and quite round, with a diameter of about 45" .... The tail was then very bright." On September 17.62, Gould said the comet was easily found in full daylight, although a "shade-glass" had to be used because of the comet's proximity to the sun. On September 17.64, Gould said the comet and sun were in the same field of view. Finlay and Elkin said the comet was visible throughout the day at the Cape of Good Hope and they made a large number of measurements using the great Indian theodolite. Finlay began watching the comet in the afternoon using a 6-inch equatorial (110x) equiped with a neutral-tint wedge and noted the comet rapidly approaching the sun's limb. Two measures with the micrometer revealed the comet's disk was 4" across. Both the comet and the sun's limb were in the same field of view on September 17.6430. Finlay commented, "The silvery light of the comet presented a striking contrast to the reddish-yellow of the Sun; the tail could only be traced to a very short distance now." Elkin said "I actually observed it to disappear among the undulations of the Sun's limb" on September 17.6506. Finlay finally lost sight of the comet about 8.5 seconds later "when the Sun's limb was boiling all about it. I fancied I caught a glimpse of it 3s later, but was not sure. I then examined the Sun's disk very carefully, but could not see the slightest trace of the comet." Gould tried to find the comet on September 17.68, but failed, as it was then transiting the sun. He noted, "although I carefully scrutinized [the sun] and especially the preceding limb as it traversed the field of the meridian-circle, no token of the comet could be seen, nor could it be found during the afternoon."
  • As the comet approached perihelion it began transiting the sun on September 17.65. The transit ended on September 17.69, after 1 hour and 17 minutes. The comet passed perihelion on September 17.72, and by September 17.74 it reached a maximum solar elongation of 27' and then began heading towards an occultation by the sun. The occultation began on September 17.79, and ended on September 17.87, after 1 hour and 58 minutes.
  • The first half of October was an interesting time for the comet, as telescopes began revealing things happening both inside and outside the coma. Total magnitude estimates were not plentiful, but did indicate the comet was fading, despite finally becoming visible in dark skies. On the 1st, Barker estimated the magnitude as about 0.5, while E. E. Markwick (Pietermaritzburg, South Africa) noted it equaled a star of the 1st magnitude. On the 6th, L. Weinek (Gohlis-Leipzig) estimated it as close to magnitude 1.8. Most observers were reporting the comet was a distinct white color early in this period, while Barnard reported a "pearly hue" on the 15th. The tail length stayed remarkably consistent at between 15° and 20° throughout and remained quite narrow. A dark streak was also reported extending down the center of the tail for a short distance from the coma, which had vanished by the 8th.
  • The nucleus began undergoing changes near the end of September. Barnard looked at the comet with a 5-inch Byrne refractor (78x) on the 27th and noted the nucleus was elongated in the direction of the tail. By the 30th, O. C. Wendell (Harvard College Observatory), Ricco, and Tebbutt were also noting the elongation of the nucleus. A notable change occurred on October 2, when Pritchett said the shape of the nucleus had become egg-shaped, with "the wider end towards the sun." On the 3rd, F. Terby (Louvain) and Eddie independently reported two nuclei, with Eddie using a 9.5-inch reflector and noting they were distinctly ellipsoidal. On the 4th, Eddie wrote, "The preceding nucleus was larger and brighter than the other, and they resembled in shape two grains of rice placed end to end." On the 5th, both Barnard and Wilson independently reported the presence of three nuclei. Wilson was observing with an 11-inch equatorial and said the nuclei were "in a row, nearly parallel with the right (north) side of the tail." During the next few days observers with small telescopes continued to report one very elongated nucleus, while large telescopes saw two or three nuclei. On the 6th, Pritchett said the nucleus presented three centers of light "situated in a right line, extending parallel to the axis of the tail." He added that they "seemed to float in a cloud of yellow dust." Krueger said the two brightest nuclei were separated by 13" on the 8th. Finlay indicated they were 22" apart on the 10th. On the 11th, Eddie said the nuclei "have greatly altered in shape since I first detected the division, and they have also somewhat considerably opened out. The preceding nucleus is now much smaller and condensed into a very bright starlike point, from which spiral streams seem to emanate. The hindmost nucleus has become greatly elongated, and now possesses as it were two centres of condensation, and appears to be fast approaching to a further division. This elongated nucleus resembles a dumb-bell with the sphere towards the tail more oval than the other." On the 15th, Eddie obtained another interesting observation of the nuclear region. With his 9.5-inch reflector he noted one completely distinct nucleus which "resembled in colour the electric light," and two more nuclei within a "bar of light." When he increased the magnification to 100x the condensations within the bar of light "seemed again doubled, so that the whole nucleus resembled a string of five ill-defined luminous beads." During the second half of October the nucleus was still seen by many observers as strongly elongated, but larger telescopes continued to show up to six distinct nuclei, which Schaeberle described on the 18th as "like very small beads strung on a thread of worsted." J. Kortazzi (Nicolaiew) said the major axis of the nucleus was directed toward PA 286° on the 19th and 293° on the 31st. Eddie monitored the nuclei very closely nearly every night with his 9.5-inch reflector and noted that the order of brightest to faintest changed from one night to the next. Other astronomers gave similar descriptions. On the sunward side of the nucleus 5 or 6 hoods were being observed. C. H. F. Peters (Litchfield Observatory, Hamilton College) reported that the innermost hood actually joined "the bright linear light of the nuclear region."
  • During all of October a very unusual phenomenon presented itself to all observers who either examined the area around the comet's head with a telescope, or had the good fortune to see the comet under extremely dark skies. Markwick reported on October 5 that when he looked at the comet with a 7-cm refractor, he noted, "South, preceding the comet's head, at this time were seen, about 1.5° distant, two wisps or pieces of nebulous-looking light. Whether they had anything to do with the comet I cannot say; but I can trace no nebula as being in this position, and moreover I have not been able since to recover them." Unaware of Markwick's observation, J. F. J. Schmidt (Athens) saw an object about 4° southwest of the comet on October 8 and actually reported it as a new comet in the 1882 October 12 issue of the Astronomische Nachrichten. Schmidt reported further positions for the object on October 10 and 11, which allowed H. Oppenheim and K. Zelbr to independently calculate parabolic orbits with perihelion dates of September 24.90 and 25.11, respectively. The remaining orbital elements were somewhat similar to those of the large comet, including the very small perihelion distance; however, although Oppenheim produced an ephemeris for the object, no further observations were made. Interestingly, E. Hartwig (Strasbourg) also saw the object on October 10. He noted a large nebula southwest of the bright comet, "which looked like a comet with a bright nucleus and a fan-shaped tail." He no longer saw the object on October 13. Barnard contributed observations to the unusual phenomenon on the 14th. He swept the 5-inch Byrne refractor around the comet and to the south he saw "a large distinct cometary mass, fully 15' in diameter. A similar object but less bright was seen close beside this, their edges touchingÑapparently a double cometÑand on the opposite side of the first object was a third fainter mass, the three almost in line, east and west." He shifted the telescope southeastward and noted several more objects, "one very elongated in form." He said, "There were, at least, six or eight of those objects near one another within about 6° south by west of the large comet's head." He added that each object had the appearance of "distinct telescopic comets with very slightly brighter centers." Barnard was so impressed with the observation that he had his wife come out and confirm they were there. Interestingly, a few other astronomers were reporting, and even drawing an extremely faint light that seemed to almost surround this comet since mid-September, which became most extensive during the period of October 6 to 17, and eventually faded from view in early November. The earliest observation seems to come from Grover, an observer with the British Expedition traveling to Brisbane to observe the December transit of Venus. Grover saw the comet on the morning of September 14 from the deck of the steamer and wrote, "The Comet seems enclosed in a large and faint envelope, which, singular to say, does not take the curved figure of the Tail, but shows a straight outline, and projects in front on either side of the nucleus, ending in two points ...." He said the region between these two points "looks quite black." Another "cometary mass" was seen by W. R. Brooks (Red House Observatory, Phelps, New York) on October 21. It was about 2° long and was located about 8° east of the comet. The portion of this vast cloud of light extending outward from the sunward side of the coma became very prominent during the period of October 16 to 24. Barnard and Auwers indicated lengths of 4° to 6° on the 16th and 17th, but the most interesting aspect of this "sunward tail" was that its sides were straight and parallel with one another. E. W. L. Tempel (Arcetri, Italy) commented on the 18th that the appearance in an opera glass was like that of a tube as "the sides were bright and nebulous, while the axial line was dark." Astronomers reported this feature had noticeably faded by the 20th and had disappeared by the 27th. No similar phenomenon of this nature seems to have ever been reported for any comet, but it is almost certain that the "comets" reported by Schmidt, Hartwig, and Barnard were probably condensations within this envelope, which might represent some of the dust released during the comet's previous perihelion passage nearly 8 centuries earlier or might be the dust released by other members of the vast sungrazing comet family which this comet is a member.
  • The comet remained visible to the naked eye into February of 1883. The tail was still estimated as 4° to 6° long until the middle of February. Thereafter, moonlight interfered with observations and by March no trace of the tail could be seen. The comet was last detected on June 1.97, when Thome said he could only see "an excessively faint whiteness." Gould commented, "The comet was finally lost to view, not so much from want of intrinsic brightness, as in consequence of its lowness in the West at nightfall."

Additional Images

E. E. Barnard drawing of the region around the head of comet C/1882 R1 on 1882 October 16
Copyright © Astronomische Nachrichten

This drawing was made by E. E. Barnard on 1882 October 16. It shows the region around the comet's head, including the sunward tail. Barnard said the sunward tail was about 1° broad in a cross section through the head and exhibited sides that were parallel to one another. North is at the top. This image appeared on page 269 of the 1883 February 5 issue of the Astronomische Nachrichten.

J. F. J. Schmidt drawing of comet C/1882 R1 during 1882 October
Copyright © Astronomische Nachrichten

This drawing was made by J. F. J. Schmidt during October of 1882. It shows the rather narrow bright comet with a star-like nucleus and the fainter nebulous cloud extending primarily east and north of the comet. North is at the top and west to the left. This image appeared on pages 89-90 of the 1882 December 20 issue of the Astronomische Nachrichten.

Grover drawing of comet C/1882 R1 during 1882 September
Copyright © Astronomische Nachrichten

This drawing was made by Mr. Grover during late September of 1882. Grover was a member of the British Expedition to Brisbane to observe the transit of Venus. Grover remarked, "...the most singular thing about it is that the comet, as seen to the naked eye, is only the nucleus or kernel, so to speak, of a larger cometic form seen in the glass. The Comet seemes enclosed in a large and faint envelope, which, singular to say, does not take the curved firgure of the Tail, but shows a straight outline, and projects in front on either side of the nucleus, ending in two points A and B. The sector enclosed between these two points looks quite black...." North is at the top and west to the left. This image appeared on pages 59-60 of the 1882 December 12 issue of the Astronomische Nachrichten.

F. Schwab drawing of comet C/1882 R1 during 1882 September and October
Copyright © Astronomische Nachrichten

This includes a series of drawings of the comet by F. Schwab during September and October of 1882. The drawings show the development of the very faint nebulous region that surrounded the comet and was generally only visible under very dark and very transparent skies. This image appeared between page 8 and 9 of the 1883 March 10 issue of the Astronomische Nachrichten.