The Story of Halley's Comet

Christmas Day, 25th December 1758.

Amongst the many gifts given, for astronomers, the greatest was the arrival of a comet, predicted to return by Astronomer Royal Edmond Halley precisely 76 years after its last appearance and with it heralding a new era of astronomy.

For thousands of years at different points in history, from China in 240 BC to William the Conqueror in 1066 a celestial body was observed to travel across the night sky. This “fiery star” as described by Italian writer Bartolomeo Platina in 1470, was interpreted as an omen by some, the beginning of famine, drought, and pestilence by others, and potentially as the Star of Bethlehem in the biblical story. 

Halley's Comet as seen in the Bayeux Tapestry

The mysterious object observed by different cultures and civilizations throughout history would appear in the night sky for days, weeks, or months but all those who witnessed it believed it to be an isolated event until brilliant English astronomer Edmond Halley began to see connections. 

Halley was born in 1656 in Haggerston, England, and had a lifelong fascination with mathematics and astronomy. He studied at Oxford University, where he developed his skills in these fields, and went on to make significant contributions to the field of astronomy, navigation, geology, and more whilst also funding Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica.

Halley was particularly interested in the comet that bore his name, and he dedicated much of his career to studying its orbit and predicting its return. In 1705, after using Newton’s Laws of Motion, he published a paper in which he argued that the comets observed in 1531, 1607, and 1682 were actually the same comet and that it followed a predictable orbit.

At first, Halley's predictions were met with skepticism, and he didn't live to see his comet's next predicted arrival. On Christmas Day, 1758 astronomers gathered to witness the comet reappearing exactly as Halley had predicted. In his honor, the comet was named Halley’s Comet.

The reappearance of Halley's Comet in 1758 was a momentous event that had far-reaching implications for our understanding of the solar system and the universe as a whole. It was the first time that the return of a comet had been accurately predicted, and it helped to establish the idea that comets followed predictable orbits rather than passing straight through the solar system. 

Halley's Comet has continued to reappear approximately every 76 years since 1758, and its next predicted appearance is in 2061. It has inspired art and literature, captivating human imagination for centuries. Its discovery and prediction of its return by Edmond Halley was a major milestone in the field of astronomy and will continue to inspire and intrigue us for generations to come.

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