6.4k readers

Halley's Comet Has A Long, Strange History As A "Supernatural" Celestial Object

Updated February 22, 2018 6.4k views13 items
Editor's Note: Voting and Reranking have been closed.

Halley’s Comet is one of the great celestial phenomenons that people actually get the chance to experience in their lifetime. The comet has been flying by the Earth for thousands of years, and during that time it’s taken on a kind of supernatural mystique. Many people believe the appearance of the comet is a portent of things to come, but is Halley's Comet an omen? Does Halley's Comet’s orbit hold some kind of sway over how we live our lives, or is it just floating aimlessly through space like the rest of us?

Because of the comet's wonky orbit, it's hard to know exactly when it's going to zoom through the night sky. Scholars have been able to narrow down its appearance to a very small window: Halley's Comet appears every 75 or 76 years, and it's held to this schedule since at least 1682. Prior its discovery by Edmund Halley, there are records of comets that are probably Halley's, as they fit into the accepted timeline. The last time the comet was visible was 1986, which means it won't swing around again until 2061 or 2062.

But is this why is Halley's Comet famous? Aside from the fact it’s one of the few short-period comets we can see from Earth, it’s also tied to a variety of important moments on Earth. Because it happened to appear at the same time as various wars and famines, people began to anticipate the next appearance from Halley's Comet as a destructive omen.

Historical theories about space are always fun. They offer insight into how the human mind works when the imagination runs wild, but they’re rarely accurate. The following facts about Halley’s Comet will cover some basic information, like the distance from Earth to Halley's Comet, and how you can see remains from the celestial object every year, but it's also worth exploring the paradigm shifting events that surround the comet's presence. Who knows what we can expect the next time it breaches our little corner of space? 

  • People Thought The Comet Would Fill Our Atmosphere With Deadly Cyanogen In 1910

    Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / flickr / No known copyright restrictions

    It's understandable for people to be afraid of something they don't understand, but in 1910, people were really, really freaked out about Halley's Comet. For the most part, scientists and civilians were fine with the idea of the comet. They hosted "comet parties," and treated the celestial body as a passing dignitary.

    When scientists discovered the tail of the comet contained cyanogen, however, French astronomer Camille Flammarion jumped to conclusions and stated the gas “would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.” Smooth move, Flammarion.

    Obviously, people freaked out. They thought armageddon was here. Everyone started buying gas masks, and a few entrepreneurial folks began selling "Anti-Comet Pills." Scientists tried to explain how Flammarion's theory was impossible, but no one listened. In the end, gas failed to impregnate the atmosphere, and the comet continued on its path. 

  • An Amateur Astronomer Believed The Comet Would Set Earth On Fire

    Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / flickr / No known copyright restrictions

    1910 was a frightening year for amateur astronomers. With the coming of Halley's Comet, people began to fear for the worst and a bunch of wild theories cropped up about what could happen when the comet came around. One amateur astronomer, Sze zuk Chang Chin-liang, wrote a letter to the Engineer-in-Chief of the General Post Office in Greenwich to tell him the Earth was probably going to be burned to a crisp when the comet passed through the solar system again.

    He believed the comet was transparent, convex, and had two distinct poles. He thought once the comet got between the Earth and the Sun, it would magnify the Sun's rays and cook the inhabitants of the planet. His letter arrived from Shanghai two years after Halley's Comet passed the Earth, and we remained unburnt. 

  • Some People Believe Halley's Comet Was The Star Of Bethlehem

    Photo: Wonderlane / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    The problem with being the most famous comet in the solar system is that everyone projects their personal beliefs onto you. It's been speculated that Halley's Comet was the "star" the three wise men followed in order to find Jesus, but it doesn't really fit the timeline. 

    It's likely Jesus was born during sometime between 6 and 4 BCE, which doesn't work with the comet's timeline, as it appeared in both 164 BCE and 87 BCE. This doesn't mean the wise men didn't see a comet - it just wasn't Halley's Comet

  • The Comet May Have Caused A Decade-Long Winter Starting In 536 CE

    Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / flickr / No known copyright restrictions

    According to some researchers, around the year 536 CE a decade-long winter began, and it had something to do with Halley's Comet. Scholars in Europe and Asia at the time reported 536 CE and the following years were absolutely freezing. Their writings describe what sounds like a large celestial body passing across the Sun. This caused a deep freeze, which completely destroyed crops and lead to years of famine. 

    Geologist Dallas Abbott believes that on its trip past the Sun, Halley's Comet broke up; the resulting pieces of debris that fell to Earth created a large dust cloud, effectively blocking out the sun. An analysis of Greenland ice in 2013 from 533 - 540 CE shows "large amounts of atmospheric dust during this seven-year period, not all of it originating from Earth," according to Abbott.

    Researchers also believe it could have been the reason humanity was more vulnerable to "Justinian's plague" from 541-542 CE. That being said, there's still quite a lot of research to do before we can place blame for this theoretical freeze on the comet.