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Remembering Halley’s Comet in 1910, 1986

July 15, 2010 at 11:37 AM

The most famous comet of all time made its last dramatic appearance 100 years ago this year. Halley’s Comet dazzled the world in 1910, causing awe, scientific interest and terror.

This comet became well known for its bright apparition and regular, clocklike rendezvous with the neighborhood of the Earth in the inner solar system. Traveling a long ellipse as far away as beyond the orbit of Neptune, it takes 76 years to loop back around where we can see it again.

Perhaps some readers saw it in 1986. I was glad to have recorded it among my observations after several years of hearing and reading about the comet’s anticipated return. Unfortunately, the news was blown a bit out of proportion. The public had the idea that the comet would again be brilliant and spanning a noticeable portion of the sky with its glorious tail flowing back from its hazy comet head.

The 1986 rendezvous, however, had the comet much farther away from Earth than in 1910. It was faintly seen to the unaided eye but was nice in binoculars.

Possibly no one alive can yet tell us about Halley in 1910. I had the pleasure back in about 1975—in my late teens—of bringing up the subject with a friend, an old gentleman by the name of Noah Stegner. He lived in Honesdale, Pa., and was a World War I veteran. He and his brothers ran a popular bakery in town that I recall visiting as a child. Mr. Stegner would hand me a free pretzel just for coming in. Asking him one day on a park bench if he saw Halley’s Comet, with great pleasure he replied, “Why, no one has asked me about that in a long, long time.” He told how bright the comet appeared and, with his aged hand, swept an arc depicting how long it appeared to him.

In 1910, the comet came within 14 million miles from Earth, and its extremely thin tail of gas swept right across our planet. The passage of this comet marked important progress in research. Halley’s was the first to be photographed extensively and was the first comet to be examined by spectroscope. This instrument examines the light in its rainbow of colors and detects lines where light has been absorbed by various elements making up the light source.

Among the elements, astronomers detected cyanogens, a byproduct of cyanide. Unfortunately, a rumor was published that the comet tail would poison life on Earth. Unscrupulous vendors started selling comet pills to protect those that bought them from the effects of the deadly comet. Astronomers tried reassuring the public that the comet posed no danger, but the pills sold briskly.

English astronomer Edmond Halley, in 1705, was the first to determine the orbit of this comet and predicted its return. Search of historical accounts show that Halley’s Comet has been observed at least as far back as 240 BC. The comet will next appear in 2061. That’s only 51 years away!

Noah Stegner is gone now; I appreciated all that he would share with me. If you are young, consider asking a much older friend or relative about the “old days.” They will be glad to share their knowledge and honored that you cared enough to ask.

Be sure to look in the west this month during evening twilight. Brilliant planet Venus is in a near perfect line with Mars and Saturn, which follow off to the upper left. Friday, July 9, Venus passes just above a bright star, Regulus, and is to the left of Regulus after that. New moon is on July 11.

Keep looking up!

 

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