Halley’s Comet: Why This Celestial Object Causes Panic Every 75 Years

Once a terrifying omen of imminent war, Halley's Comet last appeared to be fuzzy and feeble. Where is it now. Do we need to worry?
halley s comet

After NASA recently announced the discovery of the largest ever comet recorded, it’s only natural that people, including the boomers old enough to remember Halley’s comet flying past in 1986, start thinking about what happened to Halley’s Comet. The comet that built up so much excitement and merchandising in the 80s turned out to be a bit of a non-event.

Peter Lewis, writing for the then New York Times in 1986, described watching the comet, which was 39 million miles away, as ‘fuzzy and feeble.’  People who were watching this overly-hyped and marketed event were disappointed to see that the comet was faded and lost most of its tail on its closest flyby to Earth.

1002px Comet Halley
1986 April Comet by NASA

The short answer to where Halley’s Comet is right now is that it is following its orbit in the constellation of Hydra.

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How exactly was it discovered and got its name? Will it come back again? Do we ever need to be concerned about it?

A benchmark for many historical events

Halley’s Comet has been a benchmark for many interesting historical events. If you remember March 13/14 of 1986, you may remember Halley’s Comet last appearance. 

One hundred seventy-six years before the comet’s last appearance, the spectacle of it crossing the world’s skies In May 1910 scared many people. Superstitious folk considered it an omen of an imminent war; others were afraid of gases from its long tail.

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The comet’s extraordinary nature was recorded in history long before 1910.  It was likely noted in 240 B.C by Chinese astronomers and at many other historically significant times after that, including before the defeat of Attila the Hun at the Battle of Chalons in 451. Also, Halley’s comet is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry as it was seen six months before the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

Who was Halley?

Even though the comet may have first been seen by Chinese astronomers, it was French astronomer Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille who originally named it Halley’s Honour in 1758.

Edmond Halley was an English astronomer who made the connection that it was the same comet appearing in multiple historical events.  He had used Newton’s theories of gravitation and planetary motions to calculate its orbit. He believed that it had appeared in 1531, 1607, and 1682 and correctly predicted that it would appear again in 1758.  Unfortunately, Halley died in 1742, but French astronomer Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille decided to name the comet after Halley.

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Only people with a true appreciation for astronomy and history got the most from observing this rare event in 1986; even so, many people were disappointed with its fuzzy and feeble fizzle as it passed over Earth.

Comet Halley close up
Comet close up by ESA under CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Sadly, for the Space community, the excitement of seeing the comet in 1986 was overshadowed by the Challenger Disaster that occurred on January 28, the same year, all seven of the astronaut crew were killed.

Few people will see the comet twice in their lifetime

Spoiler alert, Halley’s Comet’s isn’t due to fly by Earth until July 2061; if you are a boomer (anyone born between 1946 – 1964), you will probably be dead by the time Halley’s Comet comes again unless Jeff Bezos’s life-extending technology will be successful in prolonging human life.  

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Animation of 1P/Halley orbit 1986 apparition
Comet orbit by Phoenix7777 under CC BY-SA 4.0

If you were young but can still remember when you saw the comet in 1986, you’ll probably be dead or old with fading eyesight when the comet flies by again.

Some of the best images that we have of Halley’s Comet today were taken in 1982.  Four years before Halley’s Comet’s last flyby, astronomers used the Hale Telescope in California to provide images while Halley’s Comet was still beyond the orbit of Saturn. 

When the comet was at its nearest point to Earth in March 1986, there was an international effort to send spacecraft to observe it.

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  • Sakigake and Suisei were the names of two Japanese spacecraft
  • Vega 1 and Vega 2 were the names of two Soviet spacecraft
  • Giotto was the name of the European Space Agency spacecraft

NASA would have also contributed to this effort but canceled sending a spacecraft due to the Challenger disaster.

How far will Halley’s Comet be when people see it again?

 

Halley’s Comet’s next perihelion transit (the point that it will be nearest to our Sun again) will be in 2061. In 2061, Halley’s Comet will be located approximately 44 million miles away from our planet.  While this is further than its perihelion in 1985-86, the comet will be in a better position for observation.

The comet is losing mass in every orbit; astronomers do not currently envisage that its orbit will bring it dangerously close to Earth.  Astronomers may need to review in another few hundred years.

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Feature image credit: comet by Pablo Carlos Budassi under CC BY-SA 4.0

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