Comet Kohoutek is a long-period comet; its previous apparition was about 150,000 years ago, and its next apparition will be in about 75,000 years. At its apparition in 1973, it had a hyperbolic trajectory (e > 1) due to gravitational perturbations from giant planets. Due to its path, scientists theorized that Kohoutek was an Oort-cloud object. As such, it was believed that this was the comet's first visit to the inner Solar System, which would result in a spectacular display of outgassing. Infrared and visual telescopic study have led many scientists to conclude, in retrospect, that Kohoutek is actually an Edgeworth/Kuiper-belt object, which would account for its apparent rocky makeup and lack of outgassing.
Before its close approach, Kohoutek was promoted by the media as the "comet of the century". However, Kohoutek's display was considered a let-down, possibly due to partial disintegration when the comet closely approached the Sun prior to its Earth flyby. Since this was probably the comet's first visit to the inner Solar System, it would have still contained large amounts of frozen volatiles since its formation. Although it failed to brighten to the levels expected, it was still a naked-eye object. Its greatest visual magnitude was −3, when it was at perihelion, 0.14 AU (21,000,000 km; 13,000,000 mi) from the Sun. Its orbital inclination is 14.3°. Its best viewing was in the night sky after perihelion, when it had dimmed to fourth magnitude. The comet also sported a tail up to 25° long, along with an anti-tail.
Kohoutek was observed by the crews of Skylab 4 and Soyuz 13; it thus became the first comet to be observed by a crewed spacecraft, for Apollo 13's planned observations of the prominent naked-eye Comet Bennett had been aborted by the Moon-bound craft's oxygen-tank explosion.
C/1973 E1 should not be confused with the periodic comet75D/Kohoutek, which can also be called "Comet Kohoutek". In addition, there are another two long-period comets, C/1969 O1-A (a.k.a. 1970 III, 1969b), and C/1973 D1 (a.k.a. 1973 VII, 1973e) also discovered by Luboš Kohoutek.
Orbits of Comet Kohoutek and Earth
False color image of Comet Kohoutek as photographed with the far-ultraviolet electrographic camera during a Skylab spacewalk on December 25, 1973
Because Comet Kohoutek fell far short of expectations, its name became synonymous with spectacular disappointment. However, it was bright compared with the most usual comets, and put on a respectable show in the evenings shortly after perihelion.
In 1973, David Berg, founder of the Children of God, predicted that Comet Kohoutek foretold a colossal doomsday event in the United States in January 1974.[unreliable source?] Children of God members distributed Berg's message of doom across the country. The majority of U.S.-based members then fled in anticipation to existing communes, or formed new ones, around the world.
In popular culture
Comet Kohoutek inspired numerous musicians and other artists:
In the comic strip Peanuts, Snoopy and Woodstock hide under a blanket from a "strange light" in the sky in a story arc spanning 29 December 1973 through 3 January 1974. Linus eventually identifies the light as Kohoutek.
The jazz composer Sun Ra performed the Concert for the Comet Kohoutek in December 1973.
In 1974 Václav Neckář, a countryman of the discoverer, sang "Komet Kohoutek" for his East German audience.
The first single of German avant-garde music group Kraftwerk, released in December 1973, was called "Kohoutek-Kometenmelodie". On the album Autobahn, which appeared a few months later, the track title was shortened to "Kometenmelodie" (comet melody).
The first album of Yahowha 13 from 1973 is called Kohoutek.
Argent's 1974 album Nexus begins with three linked tracks inspired by Kohoutek: "The Coming of Kohoutek"; "Once Around the Sun"; and "Infinite Wanderer".
The rock band Journey wrote and recorded the instrumental "Kohoutek", which appeared on their self-titled debut album Journey in 1975.
The English techno group 808 State wrote and recorded the instrumental "Kohoutek", which appeared on their 1996 album Don Solaris.
Since January 1974, Kohoutek Music and Arts festival has been a free spring event at Pitzer College honoring the comet.
In the Mexican series El Chavo del Ocho, the characters are afraid of the fall of the comet.
In Celebration of the Comet – The Coming of Kahoutek is the title of a popular and widely circulated bootleg album from the band Pink Floyd. Recorded on February 17, 1972, the concert featured a musical piece referred to by the band as "Eclipse Suite" (later re-dubbed "The Dark Side of the Moon" when the band eventually recorded it as an album in the studio later that year).
The Mexican poet Jaime Sabines used the Comet Kohoutek in his poem "Veremos" as a way of making a reference to the immensity of time and space.
Burl Ives recorded a single called "The Tail of the Comet Kohoutek / A Very Fine Lady" (1974, 7 in., 45 rpm, MCA 40175).