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The Sad Demise of the Philippine Comet

Comet Boethin was the first comet discovered by a Filipino. 
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Filipino priest Fr. Leo Boethin was just reassigned to the province of Abra in 1975 when he decided to take advantage of the darkness of its night sky, unpolluted by city lights. What started as a hobby to catch glimpses of shooting stars became a hunt for undiscovered comets. 

On January 4, 1975, Boethin discovered a new comet. While scanning the night skies using an eight-inch telescope, Boethin saw a white speck that shouldn’t be there. He suspected the celestial anomaly could be a comet. 

At the time, all known comets were not yet supposed to appear anywhere in the North or South Hemisphere. 

He quickly sent a telegram to Brian Marsden at the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams (CBAT), the international clearinghouse for information relating to transient astronomical events. It was the fastest mode of transcontinental communication at the time. His message was delivered after 10 days. 

By the time his telegram was received, the full moon had already outshone all other celestial bodies in the night sky, making it impossible to confirm his discovery. 

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Determined to prove his discovery, Fr. Boethin worked sleepless nights trying to locate his comet again. It paid off. In late January to early February, the unknown comet appeared, albeit slightly dimmer than the first sighting. 

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Boethin quickly wrote up a fresh report and sent it via telegram to Marsden. 

Philippine comet was a ‘quite incredible’ discovery.

Upon reading Fr. Boethin’s new report, Marsden found it difficult to refute it, as he had also observed the comet with his own eyes, through a much more powerful telescope. He quickly wrote back to the Filipino priest, telling him his discovery was “quite incredible.”

Other observers have also confirmed the sighting of the new comet, which came to be known as Boethin’s Comet. 

Marsden and international observers were able to calculate and confirm the comet’s ephemeris or trajectory, and predicted it would return in 1986. And it did. 

But it was never found again.

The discovery of Comet Boethin was so significant, NASA even planned on sending a spacecraft to the comet because of its proximity to Earth. It would have been a landmark mission that would provide clues to the origin of the solar system and possibly the origin of life on Earth. It was the first comet targeted by NASA for its EPOXI missions, in which spacecraft were landed or crashed on comets to gather data. 

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Comet Boethin was supposed to appear again in 2008, but it never did. 

Scientists at NASA were afraid this would happen. Its last appearance in 1986 would have been followed by another one in 1997, but at that time, the comet was positioned on the opposite side of the Sun from the Earth, preventing observers from getting another look at it. 

As 2008 drew closer, NASA was on the lookout for early signs of the comet. But even with the Hubble Space Telescope and other powerful earth-based observatories at its disposal, it failed to locate Comet Boethin. 

In a 2013 study titled “The Demise of Comet Boethin” published in Icarus, researchers concluded the comet most likely disintegrated when it passed too close to the Sun. 

Comet Boethin should have appeared in the night sky in late 2020, but it never did. 

The Demise of the Philippine Comet, aka Comet Boethin

According to Transient Sky, there could be three reasons why Comet Boethin was lost. 

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First, it could be still out there but just lost to the trillions of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. “Since the Milky Way has a high density of stars, it is very difficult for the professional NEA surveys to find asteroids or comets,” wrote Carl Hergenrother. 

Second, Comet Boethin could have disintegrated as it passed within the inner solar system in 1986. Comet tails are exactly this: As comets pass near the Earth, the heat from the Sun blasts them away and slowly disintegrates their particles.

Third, the comet may still be around but reduced to such an insignificant size it is no longer visible to telescopes. As a result of its disintegration, it exists as a mere rock that reflects very little light from the Sun. 

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Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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