Comet West: The Great Comet of 1976

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Comet West in early March 1976.
Photo courtesy Peter Stättmayer
(Munich Public Observatory) and ESO

Comet West was a stunning sight in the predawn sky of March, 1976, bright with a tall and broad dust tail. I only saw it on two mornings, but it was an unforgettable sight. Although astronomers had high hopes for the comet, discovered on photographs taken in August 1975 by Richard West of the European Southern Observatory, it got little publicity because of the embarrassment at Kohoutek's poor performance after the huge hype. Comet West passed perihelion on February 25, 1976, at a distance of 0.20 a.u. (I found out later that it had reached about magnitude -3 at perihelion. Several observers saw it telescopically in daylight, and John Bortle observed it with the naked eye shortly before sunset.)

I looked for the comet on February 29 without any luck and didn't give it much more thought, but a week later, at an amateur radio contest, Phil Harrington (now a well-known astronomy writer, he was active in both my local ham radio and astronomy clubs) dropped by and told me that West had become a spectacular object. "It will be what Kohoutek was supposed to be," he said. The following morning, March 7, I rose early, glimpsed the comet even through the dense trees in our yard, and walked over to my old school to get a good look. It was brilliant, with a head as bright as Vega (which was nearly overhead) and a huge tail, about 20 degrees tall, straight near the bottom and bending to the left in its upper reaches. I watched it until the morning light seeped into the sky. The following morning, my close friend Geoffrey Worssam joined me in viewing and photographing the comet. (Unfortunately the photographs, which turned out quite well, have since been lost.) The comet quickly faded during March, and I did not see it again.

Comet West is in an orbit that will not bring it back
to the inner solar system for about 558,000 years.

Comet West remained my most spectacular astronomical sight for 20 years; it has since been equaled by Comets Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp, and perhaps exceeded by the Leonid meteor storm of 2001.

E-mail to tonyhoffman [at]