"Comets are like cats. They have tails and do as they please." I don't know who first made that comparison but it captures the very essence of these mysterious celestial interlopers. Take comet Ikeya-Zhang, for example. This comet was discovered the evening of February 1, 2002 by Kaoru Ikeya of Shizuoka prefecture, Japan, and Daqing Zhang in Henan province, China. This is the sixth comet discovered or co-discovered by Ikeya, who found his first five between 1963 and 1967, including the spectacular sungrazer Ikeya-Seki. This is the first comet discovery for Zhang.
Within days of discovery, similarities between this comet's orbit, and those of comets observed in 1532 and 1661 were recognized. On Febuary 25, Brian Marsden of the IAU Minor Planet Center announced that Ikeya-Zhang is likely a return of the comet of 1661. Early predictions had Ikeya-Zhang peaking near naked eye brightness in late March when it would pass closest to the Sun. But, like a cat, the comet decided to ignore the experts. By early March, the comet was already nearing naked-eye visibility and sported a degree long tail. A week later, reports were coming in that Ikeya-Zhang was visible to the naked eye with a five-degree tail. Days later, the comet was an obvious naked eye object from my back deck and, in 10X50 binoculars, displayed a seven-degree tail. Ikeya-Zhang was doing something quite unexpected. Then again, that's what cats are famous for.
Click on the below links to see my sketches and observation notes for comet C/2002 C1 (Ikeya-Zhang).
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Revised: April 15, 2006 [WDF]