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Edmund Halley and his Comet

By Patrick Mondout

Comets are almost always named after their discoverers, so what is so special about Edmund Halley? For that, lets go back to the 16th century. For a good portion of human history, comets were thought to be bringers of bad fortune, ill health, and even death. This fear of comets was still in the collective unconscious of the vast majority of people in Halley's time (indeed, the 1910 return of Halley's Comet was successfully exploited by snake-oil salesmen even here in the United States). Their origins were a mystery and they appeared unpredictably. All of that changed because of the mathematical work of Mr. Halley.

Great Comet of 1680

Our story takes us to 1680 -- the year a great comet was seen in the Northern skies. Halley had taken to the southern seas to observe and catalog the stars in the Southern Hemisphere. On his way back home, he saw the comet and quickly headed for Paris where the great observational astronomer Jean-Dominique Cassini, who had also discovered four of Saturn's moons, had first discovered the comet at the Paris Observatory. The 24-year-old Halley was impressed with Cassini but particularly taken with a theory of his: that the comet of 1680 was actually the same comet that had appeared in 1577. No one at this point of history had calculated the orbit of any comet so this theory, if confirmed, would change our understanding of our universe forever. From this point forward, Halley was hooked. He spent countless hours for the rest of his life working on these theories.

In 1682, another great comet streaked across the skies. Halley compared observations of the comets of 1531 and 1607 with the best mathematical observations of the "new" comet. He found them to be similar. He also found that that elliptical orbits using Newtonian theories of planetary motion fit the observed path of the comet and the periodic return of the comet.

Newton's Weighty Ideas

In 1705, Halley published a work entitled "A Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets." In it, using Isaac Newton's newly formulated laws of motion, Halley claimed that the comets seen in 1531, 1607, and 1682 were the same comet and that it would return again in 1758. 

Halley did not live to see his if his prediction would be validated.  He died in 1742 at the age of 86 and contemporary obituaries failed to even note the prediction - it had been all but forgotten.

Was He Right?

However, 16 years later, the astronomical world eagerly anticipated the return of the comet. Additional calculations of the orbit of the comet relative to the planets showed that the gravitational pull of Saturn was going to delay the return of the comet by about 3 months. However, on Christmas Day, 1758, a German farmer named Johann Palitzsch became the first to know for sure that Halley had been right. Perhaps the greatest prediction of all time had been proven accurate. From this point forward, generations of skywatchers would anticipate the return of Halley's comet every 76 years or so. 

What About Cassini?

You might wonder why Cassini isn't given more credit for this discovery. First, he made no predictive theory. That is, he was unable to predict the return of a comet. Second, his theory that the comet of 1680 was the same as the comet of 1577 was proven to not be the case. (Many comets may have elliptical orbits, but those were two separate comets.)

Space References (Books):
Dickinson, Terence. Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe. Firefly Books, 1998.
Greene, Brian. Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. Vintage, 2000.
Hawking, Stephen. Illustrated Brief History of Time, Updated and Expanded Edition. Bantam, 1996.
Hawking, Stephen. Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe. New Millenium, 2002.
Hawking, Stephen. The Universe in a Nutshell. Bantam, 2001.
Kaku, Michio. Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps and the Tenth Dimension.
Kranz, Gene. Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. Berkley Pub Group, 2001.
Sagan, Carl; Druyan, Ann. Comet, Revised Edition. Ballantine, 1997
Sagan, Carl. Cosmos, Reissue Edition. Ballantine, 1993
Sagan, Carl. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Ballantine, 1997

Space References (Videos):
Cosmos. PBS, 2000.
Stephen Hawking's Universe. PBS, 1997.
Hyperspace. BBC, 2002.
Life Beyond Earth PBS, 1999.
The Planets
. BBC, 1999.
Understanding The Universe. A&E, 1996.



Painting by Thomas Murray in 1894.

Courtesy of NASA

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