The Life & Times of Halley’s Comet

The Life & Times of Halley’s Comet

What Makes It Special?

Halley’s Comet is the most famous comet of all time which begs the question: Why? What made this comet stand out? To answer that we should start with the man the comet is named after.

Who Was Edmond Halley?

Edmund_Halley

Edmond Halley was a 17th century English scientist. As a member of the Royal Society, Halley spent time with many other notable scientific luminaries of the day such as John Flamsteed, Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren and, most notable, Isaac Newton. Also like many other learned men of his day, Halley dabbled a bit in many scientific areas: physics, mathematics, meteorology and, most prominently, astronomy.

Halley was not the first person to see his eponymous comet. In fact, since this comet passes by Earth every 75-76 years, it has been recorded since ancient times. The earliest mention of Halley’s Comet comes from Chinese chronicles marking its 239 BC passing. Later on the Babylonians also recorded seeing Halley’s Comet when it passed us in 164 BC and 87 BC. Moving ahead about 1,000 years, the comet also appeared before William the Conqueror started the Norman invasion of England which is why it also makes an appearance on the Bayeux Tapestry.

Putting the Pieces Together

The problem with all these sightings was that nobody thought they were seeing the same comet. Back then, comets were regarded as omens that appeared to foretell a disaster or a significant change. In some cases, comets weren’t even seen as real things, but just images caused by disturbances in Earth’s atmosphere.

Halley's Comet on the Bayeux Tapestry

Halley’s Comet on the Bayeux Tapestry

In Halley’s time, we had a better understanding of what comets were, but we still didn’t think they could come around again. Halley himself saw the comet in 1682. He knew of two previous comet sightings from 1607 and 1531 that were eerily similar to what he saw. Knowing how to spot a pattern, Halley surmised that these three sightings were, in fact, of the same comet. He predicted that it would return again in 1758.

For his contributions, Halley was named Astronomer Royal of the United Kingdom. He held this position until his death in 1742. Halley never got to see his comet return but, just as he predicted, it did come back in 1758 and we learned that comets orbit the Sun. The occasion also marked a change from superstition to rationalism. Halley provided us with a scientific explanation for a phenomenon that had long been considered a foreboding sign from the gods that brought havoc and death.

Halley’s Comet in Modern Times

Halley's comet

The last time Halley’s Comet paid us a visit was in 1986. By then, scientists were all eagerly anticipating this rare event. On April 11, the comet came closest to Earth at a distance of 0.41 AU. Spacecrafts had already been deployed to analyze the comet and the ESA spacecraft Giotto even took a picture of the nucleus, showing us that Halley’s Comet kind of looked like a potato. For those of you looking forward to the comet’s next fly-by, there’s still a bit of time left – it will happen in 2061.

 

Click here to read why people thought Halley’s Comet would destroy our planet in 1910.