It’s Not a Bird…It’s Not a Plane… It’s Halley’s Comet – The Man and His Discovery

The Story of Edmond Halley

Edmond Halley, the English mathematician, and astronomer who calculated the orbit of a comet only to be named after him, later on, was born on 8th November 1656 in Hagerstown in East London.

His father ran a soap making business from Derbyshire. His father faced financial turmoil after the fire of London but was still capable of providing an excellent education to his son. He was only ten then and was taught at home before being sent to St. Paul. This was the place where Edmond showed his skills. He liked mathematics ever since he was a child.

Halley entered Oxford when he was just 17 years old. By then, he was already an expert astronomer with a good collection of instruments bought by his father. As an undergraduate, he published papers on sunspots and solar system. It was while studying at Oxford University; he met John Flamsteed, the astronomer royal in 1695. He was influenced by Flamstead’s project on Northern stars and proposed to accomplish the same for the Southern Hemisphere. For this, he visited the South Atlantic island of St. Helena in 1676. He came back in January 1678 after recording the celestial latitudes and longitudes of 341 stars. In addition to this, he made a note of the transit of Mercury across the Sun’s desk. His work was the first of its kind and led him to be elected as a fellow of the Royal Society. He was only 22 years old.


Edmond HalleySource:

For his voyage to St, Helena, Halley was financially supported by his father and King Charles II. Although he didn’t get graduated from the Oxford, he earned a reputation of one of the leading astronomers of the time. Around this time, Halley married Mary Tooke in 1682 and settled down in Islington.

Marriage brought in responsibilities, but his father’s remarriage meant disaster for him. The financial support dried up. The sudden demise of his father involved Halley in legal, family and property matters. He wasn’t wealthy anymore which forced him to apply for an academic post, but faced opposition from Flamstead and a few others. This didn’t stop him. He remained at the Royal Society. In the years to come, he played various roles in the Society.

Halley’s Main Achievements

Halley learned Arabic by 1706. He started translating Apollonius’s Conics V-VII started by Edward Bernard from the copies found at the Bodleian and Leiden library.


Photograph of Halley’s Comet in 1910. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

He is also credited with converting the first four books from the original Greek initially started by the late David Gregory. Along with these, he published his own rewritten version of Book VIII in the first Latin edition in 1710. Halley was appointed as the Professor of Geometry at the University of Oxford. He received an honorary degree of doctor of laws in 1710. His most significant achievement was the comet sightings published in the synopsis of Astronomia Cometicae. He mentioned that the comet sightings of 1456, 1531, 1607 and 1682 were of the same comet and also predicted that it would be seen in 1758. Unfortunately, he died and could not witness his prediction to come true. The comet was named Halley’s Comet.

Halley’s Comet – What’s so special About it?

The most popular comet of our galaxy system, Halley’s comet is a periodic comet. It returns after every 75 or 76 years. It was visible in 1986 and is expected to be seen again in 2061. The first recorded observation of Halley’s comet comes from 239 B.C. As per the European Space Agency, Chinese astronomers recorded the passing of Halley’s comet in Shih Chi and Wen-Hsien Thung Khao chronicles.


BULGARIA – SEPTEMBER 06: Sheet commemorating the Passage of Halley’s Comet (1986), depicting the portrait of Edmund Halley (1656-1742), the orbit of the comet and artificial satellites, 1986. Bulgaria, 20th century. Bulgaria (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

There is another study which takes the observation back to 466 B.C. which means Ancient Greeks may have witnessed it. After this, Halley’s comet made an appearance in 164 B.C. and 87 B.C. Hence, it must be present in the Babylonian records which are now in the British Museum in London.

The Last Appearance

Halley’s comet was last visible in 1986. When the comet was extremely close to the sun, it was on the opposite side of the star from the earth. This made it appear like a distant object appearing as 39 million miles away from the Earth. It was the first time a spacecraft could be sent to it. Many spacecraft have been to the comet till now. This spaceships fleet sent was called as “Halley Armada.” Two joint French/Soviet (Vega 1 and 2) flew close by.


Halley’s Comet images from television in black and white, as they are sent back from the VEGA II spacecraft. | Location: Space Research Institute, Moscow, USSR. (Photo by Jonathan Blair/Corbis via Getty Images)

One of the two (Sakigake and Suisei) took pictures of Halley’s Comet. They gathered information about Halley. NASA’s International Cometary Explorer also took photos of the Halley’s Comet from 17.3 million miles away.

Some Interesting Facts About Halley’s Comet

  • It is also called a short-term comet as it takes less than 200 years to orbit the sun.
  • It looks like a peanut and is 15 kilometers long and 8 kilometers wide and thick
  • It is believed to have taken birth in the Oort Cloud.
  • The glowing portion of Halley’s comet is known as a coma.
  • During its orbit, Halley’s comet may get as far away as Pluto is from the Sun or as close as the Venus.
  • Mark Twain was born during Halley’s appearance and predicted that he would die during the next one in his autobiography. He was right. He died on 21st April 1910, a day after Halley’s comet appeared.

Halley’s Comet, 20th January 1986. (Photo by Space Frontiers/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

  • Some believe that the Star of Bethlehem as seen by the wise men during the birth of Jesus was none other the Halley’s Comet.
  • The Halley ’s Comet is even darker than the coal. It reflects only 4% of the sunlight receives. It shines only when it is closer to the sun as this burn off its dust and vapors.
  • Halley ’s Comet can also be seen in the Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidery showing the events of the of the Norman invasion of England and the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The comet was considered to be an omen as it appeared from nowhere.