Astronomy:Great Comet of 1577

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Short description: Comet
The Great Comet of 1577, seen over Prague on November 12. Engraving made by Jiri Daschitzky.

The Great Comet of 1577 (official designation: C/1577 V1) is a non-periodic comet that passed close to Earth during the year 1577 AD. Being classed as non-periodic, indicated by its official designation beginning with "C", means that it is not expected to return. In 1577, the comet was visible to all of Europe, and was recorded by many contemporaries of the time, including the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe and Turkish astronomer Taqi ad-Din. From his observations of the comet, Brahe was able to discover that comets and similar objects travel above the Earth's atmosphere.[1] The best fit using JPL Horizons suggests that the comet is currently about 320 AU from the Sun (based on 24 of Brahe's observations spanning 74 days from 13 November 1577 to 26 January 1578).[2][3]

Observations by Brahe and others

The city of Ferrara and the Great Comet of 1577. Ferrara's economy collapsed due to the 1570 earthquake

Using all the records to estimate the orbit, it seems that the perihelion was on October 27. The first recorded observation is from Peru,[4] 5 days later: the accounts noted that it was seen through the clouds like the Moon. It is recorded in the Codex Aubin as appearing on Wednesday the 6th of November, 1577 as a “smoking star” in the Nahuatl-language text of folio 60v. On November 7, in Ferrara, Italy, architect Pirro Ligorio described "the comet shimmering from a burning fire inside the dazzling cloud."[5] On November 8, it was reported by Japanese astronomers with a Moon-like brightness and a white tail spanning over 60 degrees.[6][4]

While he was age six (some references say five), the mother of Johannes Kepler took him to see the comet.[7][8]

Tycho Brahe, who is said to have first viewed the comet slightly before sunset on November 13[9] after having returned from a day of fishing,[10] was the most distinguished observer and documenter of the comet's passing.

Sketches found in one of Brahe's notebooks seem to indicate that the comet travelled close to Venus. These sketches depict the Earth at the centre of the Solar System, with the Sun and moon in orbit and the other planets revolving around the Sun, a model that was later displaced by heliocentricity.[1] Brahe made thousands of very precise measurements of the comet's path, and these findings contributed to Johannes Kepler's theorising of the laws of planetary motion and realisation that the planets moved in elliptical orbits.[11] Kepler, who was Brahe's assistant during his time in Prague, believed that the comet's behavior and existence was proof enough to displace the theory of celestial spheres, although this view turned out to be overly optimistic about the pace of change.[12]

In November 2013 the distance between the Sun and comet C/1577 V1 was about 323 AU.[2]

Brahe's discovery that the comet's coma faced away from the Sun was also significant.

One failing of Brahe's measurements was in exactly how far out of the atmosphere the comet was, and he was unable to supply meaningful and correct figures for this distance;[13] however, he was, at least, successful in proving that the comet was beyond the orbit of the Moon about the Earth,[10] and, further to this, was probably near three times further away.[12] He did this by comparing the position of the comet in the night sky where he observed it (the island Hven, near Copenhagen) with the position observed by Thadaeus Hagecius (Tadeáš Hájek) in Prague at the same time, giving deliberate consideration to the movement of the Moon. It was discovered that, while the comet was in approximately the same place for both of them, the Moon was not, and this meant that the comet was much further out.[14]

Brahe's finding that comets were heavenly objects, while widely accepted, was the cause of debate up until and during the seventeenth century, with many theories circulating within the astronomical community. Galileo claimed that comets were optical phenomena, and that this made their parallaxes impossible to measure. However, his hypothesis was not accepted.[13]

Several other observers[15] recorded seeing the comet: The astronomer Taqi al-Din Muhammad ibn Ma'ruf[16] recorded the passage of the comet. The Sultan Murad III saw these observations as a bad omen for the war and blamed al-Din for the plague which spread at the time.[17] Other observers include Helisaeus Roeslin, William IV, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel,[18] Cornelius Gemma, who noted the comet had two tails[4][19] and Michael Mästlin[20] also identified it as superlunary. This comet and the observation that it was traveling on the earth’s atmosphere was also what helped Maestlin to explain the gaps in Copernicus’s planetary system. According to Maestlin, a comet would carry its own orb, since he considered comets to be part of the heavenly objects. These orbs, he suggested, are what fill the gaps in Copernicus’s system.[21] Additionally it was also observed by Abu'l-Fazl ibn Mubarak, who recorded the comet's passage in the Akbarnama.[4]

In art and literature

Cometographia, a book on the Great Comet of 1577, by Laurence Johnson

The literature resulting from the passing of the comet was prolific, and these works, as well as the ideas presented by many astronomers, caused much controversy. However, the idea that comets were heavenly objects became a respected theory, and many took this concept to be true.[13] Artwork inspired by the event was also made—artist Jiri Daschitzky made an engraving that was inspired by the passing of the comet over Prague on November 12, 1577. Cornelis Ketel painted the portrait of Richard Goodricke around 1578. Goodricke had reached adulthood in 1577 and apparently saw the comet as an omen and had it included in the painting. Roeslin also produced one of the more complex of the representations of the Great Comet, described as "an interesting, though crude, attempt".[22]

Contemporary references

The comet was mentioned in the 17th century Vietnamese chronicle Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, Book 17, part 1: "In November 1577 (lunar calendar), comet appears, pointing at the southeastern sky, its luminous tail is as long as 40 zhàng with rose and purple tint, everyone was frightened. On first date of December, the comet disappears". Due to this observation, King Lê Thế Tông changed his era name to Quang Hưng (光興) meaning bright and rising in the next year, 1578.

The comet was also recorded by Chinese historians in History of Ming, Book 27, Treatises, Astronomy part 3.

This comet was mentioned in the book entitled Sêfer Chazionot – The Book Of Visions by Rabbi Hayyim ben Joseph Vital: "1577. Rosh Hodesh Kislev (November 11), after sunrise, a large star with a long tail, pointing upward, was seen in the southwestern part of the sky. Part of the tail was also pointing eastward. It lingered there for three hours. Then it sank in the west behind the hills of Safed. This continued for more than fifty nights. On the fifteenth of Kislev, I went to live in Jerusalem".

In Ireland, the Great Comet was observed, and an account of its passing was later inserted in the Annals of the Four Masters: "A wonderful star appeared in the south-east in the first month of winter: it had a curved bow-like tail, resembling bright lightning, the brilliancy of which illuminated the earth around, and the firmament above. This star was seen in every part of the west of Europe, and it was wondered at by all universally."[23]

Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, in his polemic A defensative against the poyson of supposed prophesies (1583, [sig. V iv]) described as an eyewitness the way Elizabeth I responded to the comet:

"How many Comets have been seen within these five and twenty years, before and after which, her majesty hath ever increased, rather than appayred [adversely affected] the sound state of her body? I can affirm thus much, as a present witness by mine own experience· that when divers upon greater scrupulosity then cause, went about to dissuade her majesty (lying then at Richmond) from looking on the Comet which appeared last: with a courage answerable to the greatness of her state, she caused the window to be set open, and cast out this word [motto, quotation] Iacta est alia the dice are thrown, affirming that her steadfast hope and confidence was too firmly planted in the providence of God, to be blasted or affrighted with those beams, which either had a ground in nature whereupon to rise, or at least no warrant out of scripture, to portend the mishaps of Princes. Behold a woman and a Queen, which seem to be the kinds and callings, upon which the Comets (if Astrologers speak truth) are wont to prey: and yet not only she relenteth not to common fear, but insulteth rather upon common folly. That the Comets hinder not the lives of Princes, I have proved heretofore at large, and shall have opportunity likewise to confirm hereafter, but thus much I dare affirm, that albeit the malice of the same were no less to be feared then some think: yet her contented mind, her harmless thoughts, her temperance in diet, abstinence from excess of all things that offend, with moderation of exercise, were enough to verify that proverb which hath been rife of old, Sapiens domabitur astris [‘the wise subdue the stars’]."

Queen Elizabeth's audacity in demonstratively placing her trust in God's protection, rather than fearing the comet as a bad omen to princes such as her, was a significant rejection of comets as heavenly signs of misfortune to follow. The anecdote was cited in an anonymous pamphlet prompted by the Great Comet of 1680, The Petitioning-comet, or, A Brief chronology of all the famous comets and their events that have happen'd from the birth of Christ, to this very day : together with a modest enquiry into this present comet.


  1. 1.0 1.1 "The comet of 1577". 
  2. 2.0 2.1 NASA. JPL Small-body database browser plot and approximate distance. (needs Java)
  3. NASA. JPL HORIZONS current ephemeris more accurate position, no plot.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Kapoor, R. C. (2015). "Abū'l Faẓl, independent discoverer of the Great Comet of 1577". Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 18 (3): 249–260. doi:10.3724/SP.J.1440-2807.2015.03.03. Bibcode2015JAHH...18..249K. 
  5. Ginette Vagenheim (2014). "Une description inédite de la grande comète de 1577 par Pirro Ligorio avec une note sur la rédaction des Antichità Romane à la cour du duc Alphonse II de Ferrare" (in fr). La Festa delle Arti: 304–305. 
  6. Rao, Joe (December 23, 2013). "'Comets of the Centuries': 500 Years of the Greatest Comets Ever Seen". 
  7. Of Albion, Martin (November 1, 2017). "Great Astronomers: Johannes Kepler". 
  8. "How Johannes Kepler revolutionized astronomy". 
  9. Seargent, p. 105
  10. 10.0 10.1 Grant, p. 305
  11. Gilster, p. 100
  12. 12.0 12.1 Seargent, p. 107
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 "The Galileo Project". 
  14. Lang, p. 240
  15. Moritz Valentin Steinmetz: Von dem Cometen welcher im November des 1577. Jars erstlich erschienen, und noch am Himmel zusehen ist, wie er von Abend und Mittag, gegen Morgen und Mitternacht zu, seinen Fortgang gehabt, Observirt und beschrieben in Leipzig ..., Gedruckt bey Nickel Nerlich Formschneider, 1577 [1]
  16. Ünver, Ahmet Süheyl (1985). İstanbul Rasathanesi. Atatürk Kültür, Dil ve Tarih Yüksek Kurumu Türk Tarih Kurumu yayınları. pp. 3–6. 
  17. "The Story of the Two Astronomers Who Studied the Great Comet of 1577". Interesting Engineering. September 5, 2016. 
  18. Tofigh Heidarzadeh. A History of Physical Theories of Comets, From Aristotle to Whipple. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 47. 
  19. Gemma, Cornelius (1577). De naturae divinis characterismis. Antwerpen: Plantin, Christophe. 
  20. J J O'Connor and E F Robertson. "biography of Michael Mästlin". 
  21. Barker, P., & Goldstein, B. R. (2001). Theological foundations of Keplers astronomy. Ithaca, NY.
  22. Robert S. Westman, "The Comet and the Cosmos: Kepler, Mästlin, and the Copernican Hypothesis", in The Reception of Copernicus' Heliocentric Theory: Proceedings of a Symposium Organized by the Nicolas Copernicus Committee of the International Union of the History and Philosophy of Science, Torun, Poland, 1973 (Springer, 1973), pp. 10 and 28. For a description and reproduction of Helisaeus Roeslin's diagram, see pp. 28–29 online.
  23. Annals of the Four Masters (M1577.20)