Today scientists are still very interested in studying comets. This montage is an artist’s conception of progressive views of the Comet Kohoutek based on sketches and a description by Skylab-4 astronaut Edward Gibson. An early discovery of a large comet in an orbit that would reach close to the Sun at the end of 1973 prompted NASA to initiate Operation Kohoutek, a program to coordinate widespread observations of the comet from ground observatories, aircraft, balloons, rockets, unmanned satellites, and Skylab.
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Comets Throughout History
"Threatening the world with Famine, Plague and War: To Princes, Death! To Kingdoms, many Crosses; To all Estates, inevitable Losses! To Herdsmen, Rot; to Plowmen, hapless Seasons; To Sailors, Storms, To Cities, Civil Treasons!" De cometis
by John Gadbury, London, 1665
Civilizations throughout recorded history have been fascinated with
comets, and have held them in awe, fear, and wonder. The earliest
references to comets refer to them as "terrible balls of fire" that sowed
terror. As the centuries passed, people began to see comets less as
potentially destructive objects and more as omens of either good or bad
things that would soon happen. For instance, Augustus Caesar became
emperor of Rome around the same time a comet appeared in the sky, and this
was widely held as a sign that his reign would be blessed by the gods.
Even though comets were long thought to have supernatural roles,
scientists and philosophers tried to understand what comets were and where
they came from. The Greek philosopher Aristotle thought that comets were
merely meteors, while the much later French thinking Descartes thought they
were messengers from other worlds. Still another philosopher,
Georges-Louis Buffon, thought that comets were the source of the Sun's
energy, and that they had actually set the planets in their orbits around
the Sun. Gradually, though, scientists began to see that comets appear and
disappear with regular cycles, and that they are actually small balls of
ice and dust trailed by a tail of gas and dust.
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