Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Identification of the guest star of AD 185 as a comet rather than a supernova


VERY few nearby supernovae have been bright enough to see with the naked eye. The only such case this century was supernova 1987A. Matching historical records of such events with presently observable remnants allows accurate estimates to be made of the age and incidence rate of supernovae; ancient Chinese astronomical records are a particularly valuable resource for this purpose. The Houhanshu1 of the Later Han dynasty records the appearance of a 'guest star' in AD 185. This is widely regarded as the oldest supernova recorded historically, and several candidate remnants have been suggested2,3, in particular the object RCW862. Here we show that a reinterpretation of the relevant passage in the Houhan-shu is inconsistent with the supernova interpretation, but suggests instead that the guest star was a comet. Our findings indicate that some of the keywords used by Chinese astronomers in historical records must be interpreted with caution.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. Fan Yeh Houhanshu vol. 6, 3260 (Chung-hua, Hong Kong, 1971 reprint). (In Chinese.)

    Google Scholar 

  2. Clark, D. H. & Stephenson, F. R. The Historical Supernovae (Pergamon, Oxford, 1977).

    Google Scholar 

  3. Thorsett, S. E. Nature 356, 690–691 (1992).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Ho, P. Y. Vistas in Astronomy 5, 127–225 (1962).

    Google Scholar 

  5. Huang, Y.-L. & Moriarty-Schieven, G. H. Science 235, 59–60 (1987).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Yi Shitong Atlas comparing Chinese and Western Starmaps and Catalogues (Science Press, Beijing, 1981). (In Chinese.)

    Google Scholar 

  7. Yu Jicai Lingtai miyuan (in Vol. 807 of the collection of Sikuquanshu) Ch. 11, 4 (Taiwan Shang-wu, Taipei reprint). (In Chinese.)

  8. Qutan Xida Kaiyuan zhanjing (in Vol. 807 of the collection of Sikuquanshu) (originally written about ad 729, Taiwan Shang-wu, Taipei reprint). (In Chinese.)

  9. Chen Meng-Lei et al. Qianxiangdian of Gujin tushu jicheng Vol. 10, 53 (Ding-wen, Taipei reprint). (In Chinese.)

  10. Yu Jicai Lingtai miyuan (in Vol. 807 of the collection of Sikuquanshu) Ch. 1, 18–20. (In Chinese.)

  11. Qutan Xida Kaiyuan zhanjing (in Vol. 807 of the collection of Sikuquanshu) Ch. 64, 13–16. (In Chinese.)

  12. Zheng Xuan Zhouli Ch. 41, 16 (Chung-hua, Taipei, 1966 reprint). (In Chinese.)

    Google Scholar 

  13. Fan Yeh Houhanshu Vol. 6, 3230–3244. (In Chinese.)

  14. Fan Yeh Houhanshu Vol. 6, 3256. (In Chinese.)

  15. Lundmark, K. Publs astr. Soc. Pacif. 33, 225–238 (1921).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Duyvendak, J. J. L. Publs astr. Soc. Pacif. 54, 91–94 (1942).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Mayall, N. U. & Oort, J. H. Publs astr. Soc. Pacif. 54, 95–104 (1942).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Schaefer, B. E. Publs astr. Soc. Pacif. 105, 1238–1239 (1993).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Strom, R. G. Mon. Not. R. astr. Soc. 268, L5–L9 (1994).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. van den Bergh, S. & Tammann, G. A. A. Rev. Astr. Astrophys. 29, 363–407 (1991).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Kaastra, J. S., Asaoka, I., Koyama, K. & Yamauchi, S. Astr. Astrophys. 264, 654–660 (1992).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  22. Scalo, J. M. Fundamentals of Cosmic Physics 11, 1–278 (1986).

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  23. Strom, R. G. Astr. Astrophys. 288, L1–L4 (1994).

    ADS  MathSciNet  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Chin, YN., Huang, YL. Identification of the guest star of AD 185 as a comet rather than a supernova. Nature 371, 398–399 (1994).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing