The 19th century was a great time for sky watchers. Between 1811 and 1882 as many as eight great comets became visible from earth dazzling scientists and common man alike, and inspiring artists and composers. Probably the most beautiful one was Donati's Comet of 1858, which became the first to be successfully photographed. Three years later, another dramatic comet appeared in the sky. The Great Comet of 1861 was exceptional because it passed right across Earth’s orbit, and for two days the Earth itself was within the comet's tail. As the Earth ploughed through the comet's gas and dust, viewers had a giddy view of streams of cometary material converging towards the distant nucleus. The tail also obscured the Sun’s rays during the day.
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Great Comet of 1861, also known as C/1861 J1 or comet Tebbutt. Drawing by E. Weiss