Date: 22 Apr 2011

Comets and Meteors: A Rich Harvest from 1573 to 1607

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Abstract

When I discovered a comet on the morning of 14 June 1991 (Comet Levy P/1991 L3), I had no idea that this “brave new world (Tempest.5.1.183-184)” would actually take me on a cometary journey into the sky of a distant time and place. As the comet’s motion was documented over the next weeks, it was possible to determine its orbit over many years. In the past, it turned out that this comet might have visited us before, and it could be the same body that appeared in September 1499 (IAUC 5306, 13 July 1991). Near that ancient time the Italian poet Jovianus Pontanus was writing Urania, a Latin work about the night sky written in hexameters, that he would read at an Academy meeting in 1501. Pontanus’s words appeared again in Latin around the middle of the sixteenth century, as part of Friedrich Nausea’s A Treatise of Blazing Starres in Generall. The small portion of Pontanus’s work that relates to comets was translated into English by Abraham Fleming at the end of the sixteenth century. Thus, the comet of 1499 might have encouraged Pontanus to write about comets. When his words appeared in English a century later, they might have been inspired by a spectacular parade of 15 comets (Yeomans 1991) that appeared between 1573 and 1607.