Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Night of the Comet

Magnet # 205: Mauna Kea Observatories


Material: Plastic


Purchased By: Dad


Today marks the anniversary of the first confirmed spotting of Halley's Comet. No, it wasn't in Hawaii, as this magnet might suggest. It happened all the way back in 240 BC China, where astronomers described seeing a "broom shaped star" in the sky. Some believe that the comet was observed as far back as 467 BC, but there is no way of proving that. Other ancient civilizations such as Babylon, Persia, and Mesopotamia also recorded their sightings of the comet. So just how did British scientist Edmond Halley manage to get his name on a comet that all sorts of civilizations had been observing for centuries? Well, until he came along, people thought that comets were just random shooting stars - nobody had realized that that they actually followed orbits of their own until Halley was able to prove it. He was able to calculate that a comet he had observed in 1682 was the same that had appeared to other astronomers in 1531 and 1607. And he also predicted that it had a 76 year orbit and that it would return in 1758. And it was seen on Christmas Day of that very year. Although Halley had passed away by then, the comet came to be known by his name, a fitting memorial.


Halley's Comet has the distinction of being the only short-period comet that is visible to the naked eye from Earth. Over the years, it has played an interesting role in the course of human history. Perhaps the most interesting appearance of the comet was in 1066, when the Battle of Hastings would later occur. Comets was thought to be omens back in those days, and for Harold II of England, it proved to be a bad one as he died during the fight. But for William the Conqueror, whose reign would change the course of the Middle Ages, and who later won the battle and the throne, it was a welcome sign. There is a rumor that holds that, upon seeing the comet, he remarked that an object of its grandeur would only appear "when a kingdom wants a king." It is even represented as a shooting star on the Bayeaux Tapestry, the historic embroidered cloth that illustrates the Norman's conquering of England. Another battle may have been brought on by the comet's appearance in 1222. Legend has it that inspired Genghis Khan to head towards Europe in his conquests. And Mark Twain was born two weeks after Haley's Comet's perihelion, the time in its orbit when it is closest to the Sun, in 1835. In his autobiography, he claimed that he wanted to come in and go out with the comet, even though it was coming the following year. He said that he thought it was God's intention that "these two unaccountable freaks" come in and go out together. Twain got his wish when he passed away on April 21 of 1910, the day after the comet's perihelion. There does seem to be an unusual quality about this particular celestial body.

Even thought I was pretty young when Halley's Comet made its last appearance in 1986, I do remember all of the buzz surrounding it. I don't think I saw it then, but I still may have another shot. Halley's Comet is expected to return in 2061, but there is now a little doubt if it will. In 1987, a nun claimed that it would be destroyed in 1991. And in February of that year, two Belgian astronomers observed an unusual outburst from the comet. The cloud surrounding it was much larger than it ought to be and it was far brighter than usual. They concluded that it collided with another object, and it may have become multiple, smaller comets, or have entirely torn apart. I certainly hope that's not the case. But other scientists observed it in 2003 and although it was the farthest comet ever seen, it appears to still be intact. I guess we'll just have to wait and find out if it's still fine when it gets closer. But don't count it out yet - Halley's Comet has appeared in some of the most interesting moments of our history on the planet - some say it was even the star that shone on the night of Christ's birth - and it may still be with us for many more.

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