Edmond Halley (1656 –1742) was an English astronomer, geophysicist, mathematician, meteorologist, and physicist, responsible for numerous important and landmark works, studies and discoveries, yet today he is remembered as the person who tracked the path of a comet that he had not discovered.
Halley published "A Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets" in 1705, cataloguing what he had found from searching historical records of 24 comets appearing near Earth between 1337 to 1698. Three of those observations appeared to be very similar in terms of orbit and other parameters, leading Halley to propose that one comet might be visiting Earth again and again. The comet appeared in 1531, 1607 and 1682. Halley suggested the same comet could return to Earth in 1758. Halley did not live long enough to see its return – he died in 1742 – but his discovery inspired others to name the comet after him.
The first known observation of Halley's took place in 239BC, according to the European Space Agency. Chinese astronomers recorded its passage in the Shih Chi and Wen Hsien Thung Khao chronicles.
The appearance of Halley's Comet in 12 BC was recorded in the Book of Han by Chines astronomers of the Han Dynasty who tracked it from August through October. Only a few years distant from the conventionally assigned date of birth of Jesus Christ, it has led some theologians and astronomers to suggest that it might explain the Biblical story of the Star of Bethlehem. There are other explanations for the phenomenon, such as planetary conjunctions, and there are also records of other comets that appeared closer to the date of Jesus' birth.
Halley's most famous appearance occurred shortly before the 1066 invasion of England by William the Conquerer. It is said that William felt the comet heralded his success. In any case, the comet was put on the Bayeaux Tapestry – which chronicles the invasion – in William's honour.
Another appearance of the comet in 1301 possibly inspired Italian painter Giotto's rendering of the Star of Bethlehem in "The Adoration of the Magi".
The 1910 pass of Halley’s Comet was the first occasion on which it was photographed, above.
According to one commentator:
In April and May of 1910, Halley’s Comet passed particularly close to Earth. And get this: because of media hype of the event, a lot of people panicked and thought it was going to be the end of the world. Good thing we live in a time where more level heads in the media prevail and no news source ever creates undo fear as a way to scare up ratings.
According to biographer Albert Bigelow Paine, the writer Mark Twain said in 1909, "I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it." Twain died on April 21, 1910, one day after the comet's emergence from the far side of the sun.
The first Halley's Comet of the space age – in 1986 – saw several spacecraft approach its vicinity to sample its composition. High-powered telescopes also observed the telescope as it swung by Earth.
One of the missions of the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle was to take a close look at Halley’s Comet when it arrived in February 1986 but the shuttle, which took off on 28 January 1986, broke apart 73 seconds after lift off, killing all 7 astronauts.
The 1986 viewing, by eye, of Halley’s Comet was a bit of a fizzer. The comet and Earth were on opposite sides of the Sun in February 1986, creating the worst viewing circumstances for Earth observers for the last 2,000 years.
The next predicted return of Halley's Comet is 28 July 2061 The comet will be on the same side of the sun as Earth and will be much brighter than in 1986.