HHalley’s Comet is one of the most famous of all, partly because it is featured on the Bayeux tapestry.  It’s the most easily visible of the short-period comets, i.e. ones that come back fairly often, in Halley’s case every 75-76 years.

It was last here in 1986 and I don’t remember seeing it.  I was very busy with work then, but considering how vividly I remember Hale-Bopp just 10 or so years later, I wonder why.  It might have something to do with the way Hale-Bopp shone in the night sky at the end of my street as I walked home from the station – and was visible for over 18 months.  It was even more spectacular in the dark skies of Cornwall.  I painted that one…

Comets orbit the sun, usually, but their origin is at the edges of the solar system, probably in the Magellanic Clouds.  They mostly consist of a mixture of frozen gas and rock (they have been described as dirty snowballs).  As they get nearer the sun, the dust and gases evaporate, giving off the stream of dust which catches the light; we can see it as the coma, or tail of the comet.  The stream is not due to the direction of travel, it is the effect of the solar wind on the vapour.  So the coma always points away from the sun.  Halley was extensively studied on its last visit, and was found to be more dust and rock than ice.

Halley is named after Sir Edmund Halley, later the Astronomer Royal, who, in 1705 was the first to recognise its regular occurrence and calculate its return.  His name is variously spelled as Halley, Hailey and Haley, hence the confusion over how it is pronounced. (Hall, Hal, or Hale)

The first record of it was in 240 BC, by the Chinese, although there is a possibility that an earlier record of comets and meteor showers may have involved Halley – good old Pliny the Elder noted those had appeared in 468 BC.  There are plenty of records of comets or stars with tails in various cultural histories since then.

Its next appearance will be in summer 2061.  Not too long to wait.

Pictures of tapestry and Halley’s comet from wikipedia – lots of further information here.  Pastel painting of Hale Bopp (c) J M Pett 1997

Halley’s Comet
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15 thoughts on “Halley’s Comet

  • 9 April, 2015 at 2:07 pm
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    I also missed Haley’s but followed Hale-Bopp nightly. Mmm, can I wait until 2061?

    • 10 April, 2015 at 6:52 pm
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      Let’s make a pact!

    • 10 April, 2015 at 6:52 pm
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      I love it when Dads get all the family involved in once-in-a-lifetime events 🙂

  • 9 April, 2015 at 5:33 pm
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    I was in 3rd grade in 1986, my brother was in kindergarten. Our school brought in a photographer to take “commemorative photos” for the Halley’s Comet event, so we each have a picture where we are holding binoculars, looking at the camera while the comet “flies” by in the background. Pretty sweet for the time! 😀

    • 10 April, 2015 at 6:53 pm
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      That’s great! I didn’t have a camera around then, or maybe I was just about to buy one. I obviously wasn’t paying attention!

    • 10 April, 2015 at 6:55 pm
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      There’s always next time, Patricia 🙂

    • 10 April, 2015 at 6:56 pm
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      Watch out for another sometime, Tamara – the best ones are awesome!

  • 12 April, 2015 at 9:47 pm
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    As I recall it Halleys could only be seen with a telescope but Hale Bopp… The thing that got me about that was that the last humans to see it were living at about the time the pyramids were being built. That just blew me away.

    Cheers

    MTM

    • 13 April, 2015 at 10:55 am
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      Yes, that is mind-boggling!

  • 13 April, 2015 at 11:01 pm
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    I vaguely remember both…Hale-Bopp was definitely more something to just see in the night sky. Was it in 1997? I seem to remember a late-night drive along the Front Range in Colorado, with a comet hanging in the sky…

    • 14 April, 2015 at 5:09 pm
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      I totally agree!

  • 17 May, 2015 at 2:14 pm
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    Hi Jemima – I’d hoped to see Halley’s Comet in South Africa – we drove out away from Jhb .. but it was cloudy and thus we failed! I didn’t ‘twig’ about Hale Bopp … but I must have seen it .. just not realising its importance … I suspect 2061 might be a life-stretch too far!! Cheers Hilary

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