Halley’s Comet is the most well-known comet in the world. It’s classified as a “periodic” comet, returning to Earth’s proximity every 75-76 years. The chance of seeing this comet is once in a lifetime – maybe twice if you’re lucky. 1986 was the last time that Halley’s Comet came around, and the next date is tentatively set about 40 years from now, in 2061. In the time between appearances, get to know more facts about this fascinating comet. Halley’s comet used to be seen as an isolated incident. But when the astronomy community started to truly understand how objects revolve around the solar system and universe, we gained a future model that would help with centuries of research and discoveries.
Astronomer Edmond Halley initially identified Halley’s Comet starting in the 1700s, which is why the sensation is named after him. This astronomer published “Synopsis Astronomia Cometicae”, which utilized Isaac Newton’s gravitational theories to chart the routes of 24 comets total. Using these theories, unearthed a wealth of knowledge with his unique theory that, at the time, was considered quite controversial.
The English scientist originally sought to identify three different comets from 1531, 1607 and 1682. However, he came to the revelation that these three comets were the same once returning to earth time and time again. Based on this, he predicted that Halley would circle back in 1758. In 1910, Halley’s comet sped by over 13.9 million miles, which is approximately one-fifteenth of the span between the sun and Earth. This was the first time that the comet was ever recorded on camera.
Unfortunately, Edmond didn’t live to see his groundbreaking discovery come to life. In the 1980s, NASA managed to sample its composition. As technology expanded, those lucky enough to have access to telescopes could see the comet majestically swinging by our planet. When the comet passed in 1986, it was the first time that humans were able to send a spacecraft to observe and capture it on camera. Many spaceships have ventured to the comet, and the fleet is even nicknamed the “Halley Armada.”
However, the 1986 launch was also the most infamous occurrence involving the Challenger STS-51L, which exploded due to a rocket malfunction only a couple of minutes after launching. All seven astronauts were killed in the crash, and it will be a while until we’ll get the opportunity for another glance at Halley.
Although Halley is the celebrity of comets, several missions since then have studied equally magnificent comets from a close distance, such as the Rosetta probe when it explored the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The examination, taking place between 2014 and 2016, discovered that Comet 67P had a completely different kind of water than what is found on Earth. In the 1980s, the Giotto probe, which examined Halley at the time, discovered a similar difference in the deuterium-to-hydrogen ratios found in comets versus our planet.
In its 2061 arrival, the comet and Earth will both be on the same side of the sun, making the event much brighter than ever before – potentially as bright as a magnitude of -0.3, which is quite brilliant, but not nearly as blinding as Sirius, Earth’s brightest star.
Halley’s comet might have been discovered officially by astronomers in the 1700’s, but many believe that this comet has been in rotation for over 200,000 years. Dating back to ancient times, scholars have suggested that the first Halley’s comet happened sometime around 466 B.C. over Greece.
Reports are based on a meteorite which was described as “wagon-sized” and accompanied by a “huge fiery body” that lingered in the sky for a whopping 75 days. Researchers Eric Hintz and Daniel W. Graham speculate that this timing matches up with scientists’ projected predictions that it was there in fifth century B.C. Another prominent reference comes from China. During the Han Dynasty, a document that is known as “Records of the Grand Historian” described a “broom star” that made itself visible in 240 B.C.
During one of these events, millions of sparked particles glow like fireflies as they penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere. This can happen up to 40 times in an hour, which creates the sensation known as a meteor shower. Comets, especially ones as visible as Halley, expose us to the beautiful and magical nature of the cosmos in a rare event that humans don’t often get to witness.
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