Why people were obsessed with Halley’s Comet 100+ years ago

Halley's Comet - NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory 1985

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Even the astronomers were wondering if Halley’s appearance in 1910 would live up to the spectacular sky shows the comet had given on its previous 75-year cycles.

They weren’t disappointed. The comet passed within 0.15AU, and the Earth actually passed through the tail of the comet on May 19, 1910.

As an interesting historical note, noted American author Mark Twain was born November 30, 1835 — exactly two weeks after Halley made its closest approach to Earth for that go-round.

In an oddly-fitting coincidence, he died on April 21, 1910 — just one day after the comet made its closest approach to Earth on that orbit.

According to the author of Mark Twain, a Biography, Twain — also known as Samuel Clemens — had said just the year before, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet.

“The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'”

Sadly, the comet’s 1986 return was but a shadow of the 1910 display, leaving us hopeful that it will put on a better show come 2061. – AJW

Halley's Comet (1908)

Halley’s Comet after 75 years rushes earthward again (1908)

by Mary Procter – The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, California) August 23, 1908

Whence art thou, say, thou pale winged messenger? And whither goest? What thy history? And what thy future? Tell a waiting world Ere visiting again yon silent deeps.

After an absence of 75 years, Halley’s comet (so named after the astronomer who determined its orbit) is on a return trip. The magnified eyes provided by scientists in the giant lenses of the telescopes at the Lick and Yerkes observatories will be enabled to get a glimpse of the returning wanderer from space in the fall of the present year. As the comet approaches nearer and nearer to our planet, the smaller telescopes will have their chance.

The benefit of the camera

The surprising fact, however, is noted by Professor E E Barnard of the Yerkes observatory, that the comet will be found by the camera before it can be picked up by the greatest telescopes.

In reply to questions regarding the expected return of Halley’s comet, I have received the following interesting reply from Professor Barnard. He is an eminent authority on the subject and is well known for his remarkable work in celestial photography, especially in the photographs he has taken of comets. In this way, we have learned much of the marvelous changes these celestial visitants from the sky undergo while journeying through space.

By means of photography, a new chapter will be added to our knowledge of the peculiar characteristics of Halley’s comet, and doubtless many fine photographs of the wanderer will be obtained before it recedes on its return trip through space.

Halley's Comet as observed on 6 and 7 May 1910 at the Mt. Wilson Observatory - Via NASA
Halley’s Comet as observed on 6 and 7 May 1910 at the Mt. Wilson Observatory – Via NASA

“I think you can say with absolute certainty,” says Professor Barnard, “that Halley’s comet will be visible in the 40-inch telescope in the winter of 1908. It ought to be a bright object then in a good telescope, and should be visible in any telescope of five or six inches aperture, because, according to Holetchek (Astr. Nach. for 1908, June 13) it will on October 2, 1909, be of the fourteenth magnitude. It will, of course, get brighter after that date.

“On October 2, 1908, it will be unusually faint, because its computed magnitude will be 18.2m. According to Dr Holetchek, the brightness of the comet at its best will be 3.7m. This would make it not very different from the brightness of Daniel’s comet of that year.

“But you must bear in mind that a comet is an uncertain quantity, so far as a prediction of its brightness is concerned, and it may come up to some of its glory of the middle ages, though this is not probable, for the comet at each return must lose a great deal of its tail producing material, and hence at each successive return, it must present a less brilliant aspect.

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“Briefly, the position of Halley’s comet at the return is not yet known with any decided accuracy. Cowell and Cromelin (Monthly Notice, Royal Astronomical society, Vol. 68) give the perihelion passage April 3, 1310. They are doubtless nearer it than others, but there is an uncertainty of perhaps several weeks.

“The largest field of view of the 40 inch telescope is less than six minutes of arc. This will be covered many times by the little fingernail held at arm’s length. The astronomer, therefore, can see but a small speck of space. If the position of an object be closely known, it can be readily picked up if bright enough to be seen in the 40 inch. But if the place is uncertain by some degrees it would be a great loss of time to hunt for it with the 40 inch.

“At the same time, the photographic plate is far more sensitive than the naked eye to the light of a comet. The field of view of a photographic telescope is far greater than that of the visual telescope so that it can readily take in, in one picture, ail the region that is likely to contain the comet.

“There are much greater chances of the comets being picked up with some of the reflecting telescopes, or with some of the portrait lenses, by aid of the photographic plate. Though the comet will be very faint the coming fall and winter, I have no doubt that it will be found photographically.”

Halley's Comet approaching - The Johnson City Comet (Johnson City, Tennessee) May 3 1910

The comet’s current location

The comet is now out between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. It will be within the distance of Jupiter’s orbit after March 1, 1909. It is possible that someone with the aid of a great telescope or photographic camera may catch sight of the expected visitor during the Winter of 1908-1909. We may begin to search for it as early as September 1908, provided good ephemerides are at hand. Almost certainly it may be found by September or October.

It will then be only a round nebula, whatever tail it has being almost directly behind it as seen from the earth. The date of its nearest approach to the sun, according to H.C. Wilson, should be March 10, 1910.

After October, 1909, the comet will probably be visible to the unaided eye. Even now it is nearer to us than Saturn and is rushing forward at the rate of 520 miles a minute. After it passes Jupiter, the next planet on its way, the speed will increase to 783 miles a minute.

It will then plunge through the zone of asteroids, or tiny planets which wander between Jupiter and Mars. Woe to any small asteroid it may encounter on the way, but worse still for the comet, should it crash head on in its mad career into the giant planet Jupiter, the great disturber of comets.

Halley's Comet fears 1910

Annexing comets and space rocks

It is a well-known fact that the giant planet has a way of annexing comets and even tiny asteroids which may happen to drift his way in a most unprincipled fashion. Suspicions have been aroused concerning two new moons acquired of late years which doubtless were once members of the asteroid family.

“Jupiter has been, gravely accused by some learned astronomers of exerting his mighty influence on the helpless worldlets and adding them to his own family circle. Not only that, but he has reached out for passing comets and captured no less than 30, which are now recognized and spoken of as Jupiter’s ‘family’ of comets.

At its appearance in 1835, Halley’s comet made a fairly near approach to Jupiter, which caused the comet to hasten its return somewhat. However, on its present journey no unnecessary alarm need be felt regarding a possible encounter with the celestial robber, Jupiter, as the comet will not approach that planet within several million miles.

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“In fact, none of the other large planets comes anywhere near the comet on this trip, and in the case of Neptune this is fortunate, for when the elements of the 1910 orbit were computed Neptune had not been discovered. Consequently, no allowances had been made for the possible effect of a close encounter with this planet. It is the outermost in the solar system and possesses no small attractive powers of its own, though not to be compared with that exerted by Jupiter.

At present, Neptune is credited with a family of six comets, including Halley’s comet — and providing all goes well with the latter on its return trip, it will continue a member of the Neptunian retinue. After passing Jupiter, the asteroids and Mars, the comet will increase its speed to 1,284 miles a minute, dashing onward past our planet at the increased rate of 1,548 miles a minute, and rushing frantically around the sun as though to escape its intense heat at the rate of 1,878 miles a minute. By that time, it will have reached the limit of the pace that kills, for an increase in speed of about 17 miles a minute would end disastrously. The comet would be drawn along a path so changed in direction that we would never see it again.

The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts)19 May 1910
The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts)19 May 1910

Viewing Halley’s Comet in 1910

On May 2, 1910, or one day before the comet makes its nearest approach to the sun, it will pass Venus. Seen from that planet, the comet would occupy a position within two degrees of the pole star. This is equivalent to nearly half the distance separating the so-called pointers in the Great Dipper, their distance apart being five degrees.

On June 12, 1910, the comet will pass within five to ten million miles of the earth’s orbit and then gradually recede into space, after making its obeisance to its mighty ruler, the sun. As it recedes the comet’s pace will decrease, as though it felt worn out by the stupendous efforts already made.

Passing by Neptune, its speed will have slowed down to 65 miles a minute, and by the time it has reached its greatest distance from the sun, it will have attained the rate of 39 miles a minute, an “aphelion crawl,” as it has been jocosely termed by scientists.

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As another 75-year cycle must pass away before the comet will again come within our ken, it behooves us to follow the example of the astronomers and be on the lookout for the arrival of our celestial guest. The advance guard to welcome it on its return will be stationed at the Lick and the Yerkes telescopes; then the owners of smaller telescopes will get their opportunity, until finally by October 1909, it will be possible for all to see the comet with the unaided eye.

It is impossible to say anything regarding the position of the comet in the sky, as observable from the earth, until certain computations have been made. A prize has been offered by the German astronomical society of 1,000 marks for the most exact calculation, and when it is made we shall know exactly where to look for the comet. As seen from the sun its position when nearest to that luminary will be about four or five degrees from Theta in the constellation of the Eagle, a distance equivalent to that separating the Pointers.

halleys comet 1910

The comet’s return trip

As to the appearance of the comet on its return, it depends entirely upon its position with regard to the earth and sun. If the earth happens to be near the comet about the time of its passage round the sun, when the comet’s light is necessarily greatest and the train most extended, then we shall have a splendid view of the glorious spectacle. At its return in 1769 the comet had a train 50 feet in length and was best seen in the southern hemisphere. That is, the train of the comet extended to a distance equivalent to a little more than half the way from the zenith to the horizon.

At its next return, in 1835, it was somewhat shorn of its splendor, for its train was but 15 degrees in length. Even so, that means a length three times as great as that separating the Pointers, which forms a very convenient scale for denoting distances of objects observed in the sky. How the comet will look on its next return it is impossible to conjecture, but it is to be hoped that it will treat us to a display worthy of its former reputation.

Unfortunately, comets are made of such flimsy material and use it in such an extravagant fashion in the formation of trains, in order that they may be presentable, as it were, when they visit the sun, that many such visits ultimately lead to bankruptcy.

How to spot Halley's Comet - 1910

The glitter of golden dust

Halley’s comet has the reputation for being specially reckless in this way, adorning itself with trains long enough to reach from the earth to the sun and millions of miles beyond. No court beauty about to be presented to her monarch could vie in vanity with this celestial coquette.

Millions of dollars spent on an elaborate presentation gown fade into insignificance compared with the millions of millions of miles of glittering gold dust forming the comet’s train. This gorgeous raiment can be worn but once, for as the comet recedes in space the material forming the train is scattered far and wide, and the comet gradually withdraws into the obscurity of space, devoid of adornment of any kind.

As it drifts by, Neptune will present the appearance of an insignificant fluffy ball, just as it will doubtless appear when we get our first glimpse of it in the sky.

View of the Milky Way in 1870s

A comet’s photograph is absolutely useless so far as identifying the wanderer on its return is concerned. Sometimes a comet will blaze out with three trains, as in the case of the comet observed by Donati in 1858, and at its next return will appear without any train at all, or surprise us still more, as in the case of Biela’s comet, which split in two and eventually went to pieces.

Then again, it is hoped that Halley’s comet will treat us better than the expected shower of the 33-year round-trip November meteors on the occasion of their return in 1899. Marvelous accounts had been given of previous displays in 1833 and 1866, when the meteors were said to fall as thickly as snowflakes.

Consequently our expectations for the display in 1899 were great, but all those who watched for the shower one bitter cold night in November will recall the miserly handful of meteors which rewarded them for their trouble.

Apparently, the meteors have been scattered far and wide, or through some celestial catastrophe unknown to us have been deflected from their path. Let us hope that nothing has happened to detail the expected comet, or to mar its glory, and that when it returns it will be adorned in raiment befitting its presentation of its supreme ruler, the sun.

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