Lost comet

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Biela's Comet was seen in two pieces in 1846, and has not been observed since 1852

A comet is "lost" when it has been missed at its most recent perihelion passage. This generally happens when data is insufficient to reliably calculate the comet's orbit and predict its location, the D/ designation is used for a periodic comet that no longer exists or is deemed to have disappeared.[1]

Lost comets can be compared to lost minor planets, although calculation of comet orbits differs because of nongravitational forces, such as emission of jets of gas from the nucleus, some astronomers have specialized in this area, such as Brian G. Marsden, who successfully predicted the 1992 return of the once-lost periodic comet Swift–Tuttle.

Reasons for loss[edit]

5D/Brorsen, which was lost after its 1879 apparition

There are a number of reasons why a comet might be missed by astronomers during subsequent apparitions. Firstly, cometary orbits may be perturbed by interaction with the giant planets, such as Jupiter. This, along with nongravitational forces, can result in changes to the date of perihelion. Alternatively, it is possible that the interaction of the planets with a comet can move its orbit too far from the Earth to be seen or even eject it from the Solar System, as is believed to have happened in the case of Lexell's Comet, as some comets periodically undergo "outbursts" or flares in brightness, it may be possible for an intrinsically faint comet to be discovered during an outburst and subsequently lost.

Comets can also run out of volatiles. Eventually most of the volatile material contained in a comet nucleus evaporates away, and the comet becomes a small, dark, inert lump of rock or rubble,[2] an extinct comet that can resemble an asteroid (see Comets § Fate of comets). This may have occurred in the case of 5D/Brorsen, which was considered by Marsden to have probably "faded out of existence" in the late 19th century.[3]

Material coming off Component B of 73P/Schwassmann–Wachmann, which broke up starting in 1995, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Comets are in some cases known to have disintegrated during their perihelion passage, or at other points during their orbit, the best-known example is Biela's Comet, which was observed to split into two components before disappearing after its 1852 apparition. In modern times 73P/Schwassmann–Wachmann has been observed in the process of breaking up.

Occasionally, the discovery of an object turns out to be a rediscovery of a previously lost object, which can be determined by calculating its orbit and matching calculated positions with the previously recorded positions; in the case of lost comets this is especially tricky. For example, the comet 177P/Barnard (also P/2006 M3), discovered by Edward Emerson Barnard on June 24, 1889, was rediscovered after 116 years in 2006.[4] On July 19, 2006, 177P came within 0.36 AU of the Earth.[5]

Comets can be gone but not considered lost, even though they may not be expected back for hundreds or even thousands of years, with more powerful telescopes it has become possible to observe comets for longer periods of time after perihelion. For example, Comet Hale–Bopp was observable with the naked eye about 18 months after its approach in 1997,[6] it is expected to remain observable with large telescopes until perhaps 2020, by which time it will be nearing 30th magnitude.[7]

Comets that have been lost or which have disappeared have names beginning with a D, according to current IAU conventions.


Comets are typically observed on a periodic return. When they do not they are sometimes found again, while other times they may break up into fragments, these fragments can sometimes be further observed, but the comet is no longer expected to return. Other times a comet will not be considered lost until it does not appear at a predicted time. Comets may also collide with another object, such as Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9, which collided with Jupiter in 1994.

Name(s) Initially discovered Period (years) Last seen Recovered Fate
D/1770 L1 (Lexell) 1770 5.6 Probably lost due to a 1779 close encounter with Jupiter which might have greatly perturbed the orbit or even ejected the comet from the Solar System
3D/Biela 1772 6.6 1852 Broke up in two fragments (1846), then thousands, creating the Andromedids meteor shower
27P/Crommelin 1818 27.9 1873 1928 Three independent discoveries linked by Crommelin in 1930
289P/Blanpain 1819 5.2 2003 Lost since 1819 discovery due to faintness; rediscovered in 2003 thanks to good viewing conditions; first identified as asteroid 2003 WY25, subsequently matched to the 1819 comet after 184 years and 35 orbits; confirmed by observations in 2013 and 2014 near perihelion; probable source of the Phoenicids meteor shower observed since 1956
273P/Pons–Gambart 1827 180 2012 Period of roughly 64±10 years originally computed in 1917 was wrong; rediscovered after 185 years in a single orbit; possibly matches a Chinese observation in 1110
54P/de Vico–Swift–NEAT 1844 7.3 1894, 1965 2002 Lost several times due to perturbations by Jupiter
122P/de Vico 1846 74.4 1995 Not observed on first predicted return in 1921; recovered in 1995 after 149 years and 2 orbits
5D/Brorsen 1846 5.5 1879 Lost since 1879 despite good orbit computations
80P/Peters–Hartley 1846 8.1 1982 Recovered in 1982 after 136 years and 17 orbits; regularly observed since then
20D/Westphal 1852 61.9 1913 Expected in 1976 but not observed; next possible return in 2038
109P/Swift–Tuttle 1862 133.3 1992 Recovered after 130 years as predicted in 1971 by Brian G. Marsden; retroactively matched to observations of 1737 in Europe and 188 AD and 68 BC in China; source of the Perseids meteor shower
55P/Tempel–Tuttle 1865 33.2 1965 Recovered in 1965 after 99 years and 3 orbits; matches earlier observations of 1366 and 1699; source of the Leonids meteor shower
11P/Tempel–Swift–LINEAR 1869 6.4 1908 2001 Recovered in 2001 after 93 years and 15 orbits; not observed in 2008 due to solar conjunction but seen again in 2014 as predicted
72P/Denning–Fujikawa 1881 9.0 1978 2014 Recovered in 1978 after 97 years and 11 orbits, then lost again and recovered in 2014 after 4 more orbits
15P/Finlay 1886 6.5 1926 1953 Regularly observed since 1953
177P/Barnard 1889 118.8 2006 Recovered after 117 years[4] in a single orbit
206P/Barnard–Boattini 1892 5.8 2008 Recovered in 2008 after 116 years and 20 orbits; not seen on predicted return in 2014; next perihelion in 2021
17P/Holmes 1892 6.9 1906 1964 Regularly observed since 1964; large outburst in 2007
205P/Giacobini (D/1896 R2) 1896 6.7 2008 Recovered in 2008 after 112 years and 17 orbits; seen in 2015 as predicted; three visible fragments
18D/Perrine–Mrkos 1896 6.75 1909, 1968 1955 Lost after 1909, recovered in 1955 and lost again since 1968
113P/Spitaler 1890 7.1 1993 Recovered in 1993 after 103 years and 15 orbits; regularly observed since 1994 perihelion
97P/Metcalf–Brewington 1906 10.5 1991 Recovered in 1991 after 84 years and 11 orbits; orbital period lengthened by Jupiter in 1993
69P/Taylor 1915 6.95 1976 Recovered in 1976 after 61 years and 9 orbits; regularly observed since 1977 perihelion
25D/Neujmin 1916 5.4 1927 Only seen twice; lost since 1927
34D/Gale 1927 11.0 1938 Only seen twice; lost since 1938
73P/Schwassmann–Wachmann 1930 5.4 1979 Broke up into 4 fragments in 1995 and dozens in 2006, yielding the Tau Herculids meteor shower
57P/du Toit–Neujmin–Delporte 1941 6.4 1970 Recovered in 1970 after 29 years and 5 orbits; observed regularly since 1983
107P/Wilson–Harrington 1949 4.3 1992 Lost for 30 years; rediscovered as a Mars-crosser asteroid in 1979; equated with the lost comet in 1992 while searching for precovery images
271P/van Houten–Lemmon 1966 18.5 2012 First discovered on plates from 1960; recovered in 2012 after 3 orbits; perihelion in 2013
75D/Kohoutek 1975 6.6 1988 Only seen three times; lost since 1988
157P/Tritton 1978 6.4 2003 Recovered in 2003 after 25 years and 4 orbits; regularly observed since then
83D/Russell 1979 6.1 1985 Only seen twice; lost since 1985, probably due to a close encounter with Jupiter in 1988

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Cometary Designation System". Minor Planet Center. Retrieved 2015-06-17. 
  2. ^ "If comets melt, why do they seem to last for long periods of time?", Scientific American, November 16, 1998
  3. ^ Kronk, G. W.5D/Brorsen, Cometography.com
  4. ^ a b Naoyuki Kurita. "Comet Barnard 2 on Aug 4, 2006". Stellar Scenes. Archived from the original on 2007-09-30. Retrieved 2006-09-01. 
  5. ^ "177P/Barnard". Kazuo Kinoshita. 2006-11-18. Retrieved 2007-01-06. 
  6. ^ Kidger, M.R.; Hurst, G; James, N. (2004). "The Visual Light Curve Of C/1995 O1 (Hale–Bopp) From Discovery To Late 1997". Earth, Moon, and Planets. 78 (1–3): 169–177. Bibcode:1997EM&P...78..169K. doi:10.1023/A:1006228113533. 
  7. ^ West, Richard M. (February 7, 1997). "Comet Hale–Bopp (February 7, 1997)". European Southern Observatory. Archived from the original on August 20, 2011. Retrieved 2008-11-01. 

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