What Is Halley’s Comet? All You Need To Know

The Universe is an infinite book of mysteries, which we humans have been trying to unlock, one mystery at a time. And one of the greatest mysteries that we unlocked was Halley’s Comet. Our planet Earth is being visited by Halley’s Comet for a very long time. And has been leaving us wondering what it might be? An evil? Satan’s messenger? A bad omen? A sign of danger? An angel? No one knew or was certain about Halley’s Comet. Not until a very curious Edmund Halley figured out what it was exactly. He not only figured out what is Halley’s Comet, but he also found out exactly when will Halley’s Comet return, and from which part of the sky it will traverse.

The last sighting of Halley’s Comet was in March 1986. It will return back to us around the month of July in 2061. Although most of us are aware of it, we haven’t ever seen it with our own eyes. Till the time it comes back, we have no option but to know all about it and greet it with great excitement.

Let us unravel the mysteries surrounding Halley’s Comet that has been invoking curiosity in our minds since its very first sighting.

The History Of Halley’s Comet

We humans are good at pattern recognition, which is carried onto us by our ancestors. We have been good at recognizing patterns in stars during night time. Long ago when there was no calendar, and humans used to live as nomads, stars in the sky was their calendar. The motion and position of stars used to tell them when cold, summer, or rain will approach. One of those nights, they noticed something different in the sky, a bright light, followed by a trail. For many civilizations across the world, the Comet was something new, something they saw for the very first time. It didn’t match the sky pattern they were accustomed of. They thought of it as an evil.

Time passed by and Halley’s Comet reappeared several times, leaving human minds baffled. As it used to reappear after very long periods, humans weren’t able to recognize its pattern until Edmund Hilary did. Almost every civilization back then, used to see Halley’s Comet as a carrier of bad news. For them, Halley’s comet meant famine and war, for some, it was a messenger of an epidemic or death of a leader.

The Halley’s Comet was so much feared, that the word “Disaster” was derived from it. Greek words “Dis” and “Aster” mean “Bad” and “Star”, respectively.

Records Of Halley’s Comet

The Chinese were among the first to record the appearance of Comets. This started somewhere around 1400 B.C. But the first record of Halley’s Comet was from 240 B.C. in China. After that, Babylonians made a record about Haley’s Comet in 164 B.C. and then again in 87 B.C. Soon after, Romans recorded it in 12 B.C.

The Haley’s Comet in 66 A.D. was described as a star which resembled a Sword by historian Flavius Josephus. We have a good record of Halley’s Comet’s return after that. The return of the comet in years 451, 837, 1066, 1222, and 1456 were marked the most significant ones. Why? They had one thing in common; Wars, and the destruction they caused. And it has been causing panic among humans until the recent visit in 1910. Halley’s Comet was predicted to cause a mass extinction with poisonous cyanogen gas that it might be carrying in its tail.

The Haley’s Comet of 1986 was the last time we saw Halley’s Comet. Although we had made great technical advancements by then with all the space-age technology, it was the least favorable appearance of Halley’s Comet. The Earth and the comet were on the opposite sides of the Sun, which gave the view of the comet in last 2000 years. There’s isn’t any Halley’s Comet 1986 video as of now which could show the comet pretty clearly. (I will update this space if any Halley’s Comet video is found)

Bayeux Tapestry: Halley Comet at center (Image: History.com)

There are many ancient paintings and documentation with the mention of Halley’s Comet in various forms. One of the earliest art that carried the Comet in it was the Bayeux Tapestry, a 70 meters long and 50 centimeters tall embroidery piece from 1070.

Adoration of Magi: Giotto (Image: History.com)

The other famous painting with Halley’s Comet in it is the Adoration of the Magi from Giotto, which dates back to early 1300.

Painting of Halley’s Comet from 1532 (Image: History.com)

A painting from 1532 was also identified as Halley’s Comet much later.

Edmund Halley and His Comet

In 1986, Edmund Halley was 26 years old, when he saw the Comet for the first time. He didn’t know they would name the comet after him. He was hooked to this Comet, just like he was hooked to his other scientific expeditions. Edmund was truly a science guy, but let’s keep the discussion for another post and talk about Halley’s Comet.

Edmund studied the Comet’s approach towards Earth from the years 1531, 1607 and 1682. With his studies, he was able to conclude that these occurrences were of a similar comet that reappeared after an interval of about 76 years. He not only predicted the path of the Comet in the sky, but he also put forward the theory that Halley’s Comet follows a sharp elliptical path around the Sun.

Unfortunately, Edmund Halley was no more to see the Comet when it returned back in 1758, but it came precisely at the time and the followed the same path Edmund told it would. This was a groundbreaking find, and the comet was thus named after him, Halley’s Comet.

So, Where is Halley’s Comet Now?

If you want to know where is Halley’s Comet now, then you may have to track it live, as it is constantly moving on its elliptical path. As I write this article, Halley’s Comet is somewhere at the far end of its revolutionary path, at the tip of the solar system.

You can track and know the current position of Halley’s Comet at this Helley’s Comet Tracker website.

Here, you will get to know about its distance from the Sun and the Earth.

Here is a video that has positions of the Haley’s Comet since 1899 A.D. till 2090 A.D. Just play the video to see where it is right now, where it was at a certain point of time after 1899, and where it will be precisely in future till 2090.

How Big is Halley’s Comet?

closeup of Halley’s Comet taken by Rosetta spacecraft.

The tail of Haley’s Comet makes it look big; however, the actual size of Haley’s Comet is not that big. It is 15 km in length, and 8 km in width and 8 km wide. Also, unlike any celestial object, it is not round, but has a shape of a peanut.

The mass of Halley’s comet is around 2.2×10^14 kg.

What is Halley’s Comet Made Of?

If you have been curious about What is Halley’s Comet made of, you will also get to know now, why has Halley’s Comet a tail. Different compounds make up Halley’s Comet. This includes Water, Carbon monoxide, Carbon dioxide in frozen form, and other compounds.

When the comet travels towards the Sun and reaches close to it, the Comet starts heating up, thus the volatile compounds start melting. As the evaporated substance move away from the comet, it leaves a comma-like trace which glows up because of the sunlight, creating a spectacular view.

In the end,

the fate of Halley’s Comet is unfortunately not to revolve around the sun forever. Studies suggest that the Halley’s Comet will either evaporate, or will split into pieces. It may even eject out of the Solar System. But this is not something that is going to happen soon, and will take around tens or hundred thousand years. Halley’s has been reported to reduce by more than 80% during the last thousand encounters with Sun.

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