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55P/Tempel-Tuttle

Past, Present, and Future Orbits by Kazuo Kinoshita

National Astronomical Observatory in Japan image of comet Tempel-Tuttle exposed on 1998 February 17
Copyright 1998 by National Astronomical Observatory in Japan

This image was obtained at the National Astronomical Observatory in Japan on 1998 February 17. It was obtained with the 50-cm reflector, a CCD camera, and a red filter.

Discovery

     Ernst Wilhelm Liebrecht Tempel (Marseille, France) discovered this comet on 1865 December 19. It was then in the evening sky near the star Beta Ursa Majoris. He described it as a circular object, with a central condensation and a tail 30 arc minutes long. Horace Parnell Tuttle (Harvard College Observatory, Cambridge, Massachusetts) independently discovered this comet on 1866 January 6.

Historical Highlights

  • During the 1865/1866 apparition, the comet was only seen until 1866 February 9. Fortunately, enough observations were provided to allow astronomers to determine that the comet was traveling in an elliptical orbit with a period of about 33 years. Nevertheless, the comet was not seen during its expected returns in 1899 and 1932. It was finally recovered in 1965 thanks to a painstaking examination of the orbit by Joachim Schubart (Astronomisches Rechen-Institut).
  • A few years after the comet's discovery, John Russell Hind made the suggestion that the comet might have previously been seen in 868 and 1366. No formal analysis was conducted until 1933, when S. Kanda took up the challenge. He concluded that the comet of 1366 was most likely Tempel-Tuttle, but the comet of 868 was not related. In 1965 Schubart took the comet's 1866 orbit and used a computed to examine the comet's motion through the solar system for 500 years into the past, applying the gravitational effects of the planets through that entire period. He confirmed Kanda's proof that the comet of 1366 was Tempel-Tuttle and also found that a single observation of a comet by Gottfried Kirch on 1699 October 26 was also Tempel-Tuttle. With three apparitions now available, the orbit was improved and Schubart provided a prediction for the 1965 return. The comet was recovered by Bester (South Africa) on 1965 June 30 and the position indicated that Schubart's prediction had only been 5 days too early.
  • The comet's best apparition was that of 1366 when it passed 0.0229 AU from Earth (2.1 million miles and 3.4 million kilometers)--marking the third closest approach of any comet to our planet in recorded history. Astronomers have suggested the total brightness may then have reached magnitude 3. The comet passed 0.0644 AU from Earth in 1699, which marked the 18th closest approach of a comet to Earth. The brightness may then have reached 4th magnitude. The comet's appearance in 1965 was not very favorable and it failed to exceed magnitude 16, meaning it was only visible in large telescopes or by way of photography. A tail was only noticed during the 1866 apparition and even then it did not exceed 30 arc minutes, or equal to the apparent diameter of the full moon.
  • J. V. Schiaparelli (Italy) wrote a letter to the Astronomische Nachrichten on 1867 February 2 which showed that this comet was probably related to the Leonid meteor storm that was observed during November of 1833 and 1866. A comparison of the comet's orbit with that of the November 1866 Leonid stream showed an almost perfect match.
  • The comet was recovered with the Keck II 10-m reflector at Mauna Kea (Hawaii, USA) by Karen J. Meech, O. R. Hainaut, and J. Bauer on 1997 March 4.6. Because the comet was than far from the sun, it appeared star-like with a magnitude of about 22.5. A confirmation using the 3.6-m New Technology Telescope of the European Southern Observatory on March 7.3 also showed no trace of coma and revealed a magnitude of 22. The precise positions indicated the 1996 prediction of Donald K. Yeomans (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) required a correction of only -0.06 day or about 86 minutes.
  • Lowell Observatory image of comet Tempel-Tuttle exposed on 1997 March 4
    Copyright 1997 by Olivier R. Hainaut (Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii)

    This image was obtained at Mauna Kea on 1997 March 4.6 by Karen J. Meech, Olivier R. Hainaut, and J. Bauer. It was obtained with the 10-m Keck II reflector, and an LRIS CCD camera. In this image the stars are trailed and the comet appears as a star-like point near the center.

  • Although the comet was not expected to become brighter than magnitude 9.5, observers began reporting it was brightening faster than expected during January of 1998. By mid-month many observers were already estimating the brightness as near magnitude 8, and by the 23rd observers were typically estimating it as between 7.4 and 7.8, indicating it was a fairly easy binocular object. The comet's physical appearance was typically described as very diffuse during January, with a coma diameter of between 8 and 12 arc minutes. Some larger estimates were made by observers using binoculars from regions with extremely transparent skies. The comet passed closest to the sun on 1998 February 28. The comet was last seen on 1998 July 5, by observers at Dynic Astronomical Observatory.
  • Additional Images

    Lowell Observatory image of comet Tempel-Tuttle exposed on 1997 November 16
    Copyright 1997 by Lowell Observatory

    This image was obtained at Lowell Observatory on 1997 November 16. It is a combination of 10 300-second exposures obtained with the 42-inch Hall telescope, a 2048 by 2048 pixel CCD camera, and a wideband R filter to "isolate reflected light from any dust particles in the coma."


    Lowell Observatory image of comet Tempel-Tuttle exposed on 1997 December 30
    Copyright 1997 by Lowell Observatory

    This image was obtained at Lowell Observatory on 1997 December 30. It is a combination of 8 exposures obtained with the 42-inch Hall telescope, a 2048 by 2048 pixel CCD camera, and a wideband R filter to "isolate reflected light from any dust particles in the coma."


    Lowell Observatory image of comet Tempel-Tuttle exposed on 1998 January 18
    Copyright 1998 by Lowell Observatory

    This image was obtained at Lowell Observatory on 1998 January 18. It was obtained with the 42-inch Hall telescope, a 2048 by 2048 pixel CCD camera, and a wideband R filter to "isolate reflected light from any dust particles in the coma."


    Yuichi Chimura image of 55p exposed on 1998 January 25
    Copyright 1998 by Yuichi Chimura

    This image was taken by Yuichi Chimura (Japan) on 1998 January 25. He used a Takahashi MT-130 f/6.1 and an ST-7 CCD camera. The image is composed of 10 60-second exposures.


    A. Nakamura image of 55p exposed on 1998 January 27
    Copyright 1998 by Akimasa Nakamura (Kuma Kogen Astronomical Observatory, Japan)

    The CCD image was taken on 1998 January 27.49 UT, using a 0.60-m f/6 Ritchey-Chretien telescope.


    Masayuki Suzuki image of 55p exposed on 1998 February 9
    Copyright 1998 by Masayuki Suzuki (Japan)

    This image was taken on 1998 February 9, using a 0.20-m f/9 telescope and a CCD camera. The image is a 30-second exposure. The frame measures 16 by 12 arc minutes.


    Lowell Observatory image of comet Tempel-Tuttle exposed on 1998 February 19
    Copyright 1998 by Lowell Observatory

    This image was obtained at Lowell Observatory on 1998 February 19. It was obtained with the 42-inch Hall telescope, a 2048 by 2048 pixel CCD camera, and a wideband R filter to "isolate reflected light from any dust particles in the coma." A faint, thin tail is visible extending northeastward.

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