Asteroids and Comets





Charles R. Alcock (Department of Astronomy)
Freshman Seminar 23R     4 credits (spring term)    Enrollment:  Limited to 12 

Comets have been seen regularly since before the beginning of recorded history. They have often been regarded as disturbing portents. Asteroids, on the other hand, were not discovered until the nineteenth century, with the advent of astronomy with telescopes. Today we know of many more asteroids than comets, but we believe that there are vastly more comets than asteroids in the solar system. This seminar will start with the history of the study of comets and asteroids, including the “Great March Comet of 1843”, observations of which led to the establishment of the Harvard College Observatory and its Great Refractor, at that time the largest telescope in the Americas. Our understanding of comets advanced dramatically in 1950 with the publication of two extraordinary papers: Whipple (then at Harvard) described the mixture of dust and ice that comprises the nuclei of comets, and Oort (Leiden University) showed that new comets enter the inner solar system from a vast, diffuse cloud surrounding the planetary system.  Modern telescopes and spacecraft encounters provide us today with a wealth of information about comets and asteroids. We will examine these observations and learn what is known and what is inferred about the origin and structure of asteroids and comets. The students will observe with the Astronomy Laboratory’s Clay Telescope on the roof of the Science Center. Students will take on projects, which may involve their own observing program, or which exploit existing data.

Prerequisite: AP calculus or equivalent.


See also: Spring 2021