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The Question

(Submitted November 12, 1997)

When was the earliest known sighting of a comet made?

The Answer

Unfortunately, none of us here know when the earliest surviving record of a comet observation was. Comets have existed for longer than life has been on Earth, so the first time one was seen by a human was shortly after the time of the first human.

Aristotle (b. 384 BC) wrote about comets in his _Meteorology_ (~350 BC). http://webatomics.com/Classics/Aristotle/meteorology.html However, this talks about comets in general, I haven't read the whole thing to see if he discusses any specific apparitions. According to Plutarch, a comet was seen in the sky after Julius Caesar's death in 44 BC (mentioned in Shakespeare) and Tacitus talks of a comet in the late days of Nero (still later). This demonstrates how a good search engine can be more useful than erudition. I knew only of Caesar's comet before using the search engine:
http://webatomics.com/Classics/Search/index.html

Seneca wrote about comets, apparently compiling a catalog. However, the oldest specific recorded comet we have found (on the Web at least) was the Chinese observation of Halley's comet in 240 BC http://cometography.com/pcomets/001p.html

To find the oldest recorded comet sighting, you should look for the oldest astronomical records. This can include mythology and other traditional literature, astronomical records from China, Egypt, Mesoamerica and other ancient cultures etc.

David Palmer
for Ask an Astrophysicist

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