This Week in History: January 12-18

Ice and Stone 2020: Week 03 Content

JANUARY 12, 1910: A group of diamond miners in the Transvaal in South Africa spot a brilliant comet low in the predawn sky. This was the first sighting of what became known as the “Daylight Comet of 1910(old style designations 1910a and 1910 I, new style designation C/1910 A1). It soon became one of the brightest comets of the entire 20th Century and will be featured as “Comet of the Week” in two weeks. 

JANUARY 12, 2005: NASA’S Deep Impact mission is launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Deep Impact would encounter Comet 9P/Tempel 1 in July of that year and – under the mission name “EPOXI” – would encounter Comet 103P/Hartley 2 in November 2010. Comet 9P/Tempel 1 is a future “Comet of the Week” and the Deep Impact mission – and its results – will be discussed in more detail at that time. 

JANUARY 12, 2007: Comet McNaught C/2006 P1, the brightest comet thus far of the 21st Century, passes through perihelion at a heliocentric distance of 0.171 AU. Comet McNaught is this week’s “Comet of the Week.” 

Jan Oort, professor of astronomy at Leiden University in May 1961 stands next to a poster of the spiral galaxy M81 in the constellation Ursa Major. The Oort Cloud is named after him. Image courtesy of the Algemeen Nederlandsch Fotobureau (Anefo).

JANUARY 13, 1950: Jan Oort’s paper “The Structure of the Cloud of Comets Surrounding the Solar System, and a Hypothesis Concerning its Origin,” is published in the Bulletin of the Astronomical Institute of The Netherlands. In this paper Oort demonstrates that his calculations reveal the existence of a large population of comets enshrouding the solar system at heliocentric distances of tens of thousands of Astronomical Units. This “Oort Cloud” is now believed to be the parent source of the long-period comets that visit the inner solar system, and this topic is discussed more thoroughly in this week’s “Special Topics” presentation. 

JANUARY 13, 2020: The 6th-magnitude star 11 Piscium will be occulted by the moderately large main-belt asteroid (75) Eurydike. The predicted occultation path crosses northeastern China, far southeastern Siberia, and the southern Kamchatka Peninsula. 

JANUARY 14, 1970: A team of scientists led by Arthur Code at the University of Wisconsin utilizes the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory 2 (OAO-2) satellite to begin a series of observations of Comet Tago-Sato-Kosaka 1969g – the first time a comet had ever been observed from space. OAO-2’s ultraviolet detectors detected the presence of a large cloud of hydrogen surrounding the comet’s coma, the first detection of what is now called the “Lyman-alpha” cloud that is now known to accompany almost all comets visiting the inner solar system. Comet Tago-Sato-Kosaka – the first comet I ever observed – is a future “Comet of the Week,” and the Lyman-alpha clouds, and spacecraft observations of comets in general, are the subjects of a future “Special Topics” presentation. 

JANUARY 14, 2020: The main-belt asteroid (1834) Palach will occult the 7th-magnitude star HD 101517 in Crater. The predicted path of the occultation crosses primarily open waters of the central Pacific Ocean from north to south; the only land within the predicted path are some of the Hawaiian islands (eastern Molokai, western Maui, eastern Kaho’olawe, and the western “Big Island”) and the western portions of the Arutua and Kaukura Atolls in French Polynesia. 

JANUARY 15, 1951: Planetary scientist Gerard Kuiper publishes a paper in the proceedings of “Astrophysics: A Topical Symposium” proposing the existence of a large population of cometary bodies beyond Neptune. While Kuiper was not the first person to propose such a population, and the actual population is not quite the same as Kuiper envisioned, it is nevertheless referred to as the “Kuiper Belt” today. The Kuiper Belt will be the subject of a future “Special Topics” presentation. 

JANUARY 15, 2006: NASA’s Stardust spacecraft returns to Earth’s vicinity and deploys a capsule into the atmosphere containing samples collected during its encounter with Comet 81P/Wild 2 two years earlier. Comet 81P/Wild 2 was the “Comet of the Week” two weeks ago, and the Stardust results were discussed there; meanwhile, Stardust would go on to encounter Comet 9P/Tempel 1 in February 2011. 

JANUARY 16, 1985: Richard Binzel and Bonnie Buratti detect the first “mutual” event between Pluto and its moon Charon, in this case a transit of Charon across Pluto. These events continued for the next five years and constituted the final confirmation of the existence of Charon. They are discussed in a future “Special Topics” presentation. 

JANUARY 17, 1786: French astronomer Pierre Mechain makes the first discovery of what is now known as Comet 2P/Encke. The comet was only followed for two days, and no valid orbit could be computed at the time. Comet 2P/Encke, which has the shortest orbital period (3.3 years) of any known comet and which returns to perihelion this coming June, is a future “Comet of the Week.” 

JANUARY 17, 1910: The Daylight Comet of 1910 passes through perihelion at a heliocentric distance of 0.129 AU. 

JANUARY 17, 1982: John Schutt and Ian Whillans of the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) program discover a meteorite, now known as ALH A81005, in the Allan Hills region of Antarctica. The meteorite, roughly 3 cm in diameter, was found to have a chemical and isotopic composition very similar to the lunar rocks brought to Earth by the Apollo astronauts, and accordingly is the first meteorite found on Earth to be of lunar origin. 

JANUARY 17, 2017: The large Kuiper Belt object (and “dwarf planet”) (136108) Haumea occults an 18th-magnitude star in Bootes. Several teams of astronomers across Europe report the star briefly disappearing and reappearing both before and after the actual occultation, revealing the presence of a thin ring – the first one known around a Kuiper Belt object. The Kuiper Belt is discussed in a future “Special Topics” presentation. 

JANUARY 17, 2020: The 7th-magnitude star HD 48548 (in Gemini) will be occulted by the main-belt asteroid (412) Elisabetha. The predicted occultation path crosses southeastern Brazil, central Paraguay, southern Bolivia, northern Chile, and southern Peru. 

JANUARY 18, 2000: The explosion of a large meteoroid in the atmosphere deposits fragments of the resulting meteorite on the frozen surface of Tagish Lake in northwestern British Columbia. Over 500 fragments, containing a total mass slightly in excess of 10 kg, have been collected. The Tagish Lake meteorite is a carbonaceous chondrite; these meteorites are the subject of a future “Special Topics” presentation. 

Ice and Stone 2020 Week 3 consists of two other articles:
Comet of the Week: McNaught C/2006 P1
Special Topic: The Oort Cloud

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