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Comet West

There is another long-period comet West: C/1978 A1 (a.k.a. 1977 IX, 1978a).
C/1975 V1 (West)
Comet West on March 9, 1976
Discovered by Richard M. West
Discovery date August 10, 1975
C/1975 V1, 1976 VI, 1975n
Orbital characteristics A
Epoch 1976-Mar-03
(JD 2442840.5)[1]
Aphelion up to 70,000 AU[2]
(1.1 light-years)
Perihelion 0.197 AU[1][3]
Eccentricity 0.99997[1] (near parabolic)
Orbital period chaotic (more than 250 thousand years and maybe millions of years)
Inclination 43.0664°[1]
Last perihelion February 25, 1976[1][3]
Next perihelion unknown

Comet West formally designated C/1975 V1, 1976 VI, and 1975n, was an exceptionally eye-catching comet, sometimes considered to qualify for the status of "great comet".[4]


It was discovered photographically by Richard M. West, of the European Southern Observatory, on August 10, 1975. The comet came to perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) on February 25, 1976.[1] During perihelion the comet had a minimum solar elongation of 6.4° and as a result of forward scattering reached a peak brightness of -3.[3] From February 25 through the 27th, observers reported that the comet was bright enough to study during full daylight.[3]

Despite its spectacular appearance, Comet West went largely unreported in the popular media. This was partly due to the relatively disappointing display of Comet Kohoutek in 1973, which had been widely predicted to become extremely prominent: scientists were wary of making predictions that might raise public expectations.[5]


With a nearly parabolic trajectory, estimates for the orbital period of this comet have varied from 254,000[3] to 558,000 years,[6] and even as high as 6.5 million years.[2] Computing the best-fit orbit for this long-period comet is made more difficult since it underwent a splitting event which may have caused a non-gravitational perturbation of the orbit. The 2008 SAO Catalog of Cometary Orbits shows 195 observations for C/1975 V1 and 135 for C/1975 V1-A, for a combined total of 330 (218 observations were used in the fit). Comet C/1999 F1 has a similar period.


Prior to the perihelion passage, and using 28 positions obtained between 1975 August 10 and 1976 January 27, Comet West was estimated to have an orbital period of about 254 thousand years.[3] As the comet passed within 30 million km of the Sun, the nucleus was observed to split into four fragments.

The first report of the split came around 7 March 1976 12:30UT, when reports were received that the comet had broken into two pieces. Astronomer Steven O'Meara, using the 9-inch Harvard Refractor, reported that two additional fragments had formed on the morning of 18 March.

The fragmentation of the nucleus was, at the time, one of very few comet breakups observed, one of the most notable previous examples being the Great Comet of 1882, a member of the Kreutz Sungrazing 'family' of comets. More recently, comets Schwassmann-Wachmann-3 (73/P), C/1999 S4 LINEAR, and 57/P du Toit-Neujmin-Delporte, have been observed to disintegrate during their passage close to the Sun.

It has been more than 50AU from the Sun since 2003.


In the nomenclature of the time, it was known as Comet 1976 VI or Comet 1975n, but the modern nomenclature is C/1975 V1. (Note that "1976 VI" uses the Roman numeral VI = 6, while "C/1975 V1" is the letter V and the number 1).


  1. ^ a b c d e f "JPL Small-Body Database Browser: C/1975 V1-A (West)" (1976-09-25 last obs (arc=412 days)). Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Retrieved 2011-08-07. 
  2. ^ a b Horizons output. "Barycentric Osculating Orbital Elements for Comet C/1975 V1-A (West)". Retrieved 2011-02-01.  (Solution using the Solar System Barycenter. Select Ephemeris Type:Elements and Center:@0)
  3. ^ a b c d e f Gary W. Kronk. "C/1975 V1 (West)". Cometography. Retrieved 2011-02-01. 
  4. ^ Donald K. Yeomans (April 2007). "Great Comets in History". Jet Propulsion Laboratory/California Institute of Technology (Solar System Dynamics). Retrieved 2007-12-28. 
  5. ^ Burnham, R. and Levy, D. Great Comets, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 73
  6. ^ Jerry Coffey (2009-09-21). "Comet West". Universe Today. Retrieved 2011-02-01.