Great Southern Comet of 1887

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C/1887 B1
Great comet of 1887.JPG
Observations of the tail of C/1887 B1, Knowledge, Nov. 1887
Discovered by J. M. Thome
Discovery date January 19, 1887
1887 I; 1887a; Great Southern Comet of 1887; the "Headless Wonder"; Thome's Comet
Orbital characteristics A
Perihelion .00483 AU[1]
Semi-major axis 85.513 AU
Eccentricity 1.0
Inclination 144.383°
Last perihelion January 11, 1877

The Great Southern Comet of 1887, or C/1887 B1 using its International Astronomical Union designation, was a bright comet seen from the Southern Hemisphere during January 1887. Later calculations indicated it to be part of the Kreutz Sungrazing group.

A curious feature of the comet was that few, if any observations were made of a cometary head or nucleus. As a result, some older astronomical texts refer to it as the "Headless Wonder".[2]


The comet was officially discovered by astronomer John Macon Thome at Córdoba, Argentina, on January 19, at which point it was located in the constellation Grus.[3] However, correspondence from William Henry Finlay suggests that it may also have been seen from Blauwberg, South Africa, on January 18.[3] At the time of discovery the comet had already passed perihelion a week earlier, and its closest approach to Earth had been a month earlier.


The comet reached first magnitude,[4] and was widely observed by astronomers in the Southern Hemisphere for the remainder of January. On the 22nd Finlay described it as a "pale narrow ribbon of light, quite straight" of about 35 degrees in length, though no cometary head could be distinguished.[5] On the 23rd, Thome recorded a tail length of over 40 degrees, but like other observers stated he could not find a nucleus. On January 27, C. Todd recorded seeing the comet's head as a "diffused nebulous mass", but noted a break between the head and the tail (possibly representing what is referred to as a tail disconnection event).

Following the publication of an ephemeris by S. C. Chandler, which suggested the comet could be located 20° from Rigel by the end of February, astronomers in the United States eagerly waited for it to move far enough into northern skies to be visible.[6] However, the comet faded extremely rapidly, and never became visible from northern latitudes. It was last observed by John Tebbutt from New South Wales on January 30, a relatively short period of observation overall for a large comet.


The first, speculative, orbit was calculated by Heinrich Kreutz; however definitive calculation was difficult because no observations were made of the nucleus. By February, Finlay had derived an orbit which linked the comet firmly to the Kreutz Sungrazing group. A more definitive orbit was calculated in 1978 by Zdeněk Sekanina, based on the assumption that the comet's head was on a great circle "through the sun and inner part of the tail".[7]

Sekanina was subsequently to speculate that the unusual appearance of the comet was due to a "tail formation event", an outburst of cometary dust, about 6 hours after perihelion.[8] This event and the rapidly fading brightness, Sekanina argued, showed that C/1887 B1, along with C/1945 X1 (du Toit), represented a class of comets in between the "great" sungrazers (such as the Great Comet of 1882) and the many smaller objects discovered by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory.


  1. ^ Orbital elements given by Sekanina, QJRAS, 19 (1978), 52-3
  2. ^ Bortle, J. The Bright Comet Chronicles, International Comet Quarterly, 1998
  3. ^ a b Kronk, G. W. Cometography, v2, CUP, 2003, p.588
  4. ^ Milani, De Martino & Cellino (eds) Asteroids, comets, meteors 1993: proceedings of the 160th Symposium of the International Astronomical Union, held in Belgirate, Italy, June 14–18, 1993, Springer, 1994, p.8
  5. ^ Kronk, p.589
  6. ^ "Lost Tramp of the Skies - The Great Southern Comet Disappears", New York Times, February 27, 1887
  7. ^ Kronk, p.591
  8. ^ Sekanina, Z. Statistical Investigation and Modeling of Sungrazing Comets Discovered with the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, The Astrophysical Journal, 566:577-598, 2002 February 10