Prior to 1066
Observation of Halley's Comet, recorded in cuneiform on a clay tablet between 22 and 28 September 164 BC, Babylon, Iraq. British Museum
Halley may have been recorded as early as 467 BC, but this is uncertain. A comet was recorded in ancient Greece between 468 and 466 BC; its timing, location, duration, and associated meteor shower all suggest it was Halley. According to Pliny the Elder, that same year a meteorite fell in the town of Aegospotami, in Thrace. He described it as brown in colour and the size of a wagon load. Chinese chroniclers also mention a comet in that year.
Report of Halley's Comet by Chinese astronomers in 240 BC (Shiji)
The first certain appearance of Halley's Comet in the historical record is a description from 240 BC, in the Chinese chronicle Records of the Grand Historian or Shiji, which describes a comet that appeared in the east and moved north. The only surviving record of the 164 BC apparition is found on two fragmentary Babylonian tablets, now owned by the British Museum.
The apparition of 87 BC was recorded in Babylonian tablets which state that the comet was seen "day beyond day" for a month. This appearance may be recalled in the representation of Tigranes the Great, an Armenian king who is depicted on coins with a crown that features, according to Vahe Gurzadyan and R. Vardanyan, "a star with a curved tail [that] may represent the passage of Halley's Comet in 87 BC." Gurzadyan and Vardanyan argue that "Tigranes could have seen Halley's Comet when it passed closest to the Sun on August 6 in 87 BC" as the comet would have been a "most recordable event"; for ancient Armenians it could have heralded the New Era of the brilliant King of Kings.
The apparition of 12 BC was recorded in the Book of Han by Chinese astronomers of the Han Dynasty who tracked it from August through October. It passed within 0.16 AU of Earth. Halley's appearance in 12 BC, only a few years distant from the conventionally assigned date of the birth of Jesus Christ, has led some theologians and astronomers to suggest that it might explain the biblical story of the Star of Bethlehem. There are other explanations for the phenomenon, such as planetary conjunctions, and there are also records of other comets that appeared closer to the date of Jesus' birth.
If, as has been suggested, the reference in the Talmud to "a star which appears once in seventy years that makes the captains of the ships err" (see above) refers to Halley's Comet, it may be a reference to the 66 AD appearance, because this passage is attributed to the Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah. This apparition was the only one to occur during ben Hananiah's lifetime.
The 141 AD apparition was recorded in Chinese chronicles. It was also recorded in the Tamil work Purananuru, in connection with the death of the south Indian Chera king Yanaikatchai Mantaran Cheral Irumporai.
The 374 AD and 607 approaches each came within 0.09 AU of Earth. The 684 AD apparition was recorded in Europe in one of the sources used by the compiler of the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicles. Chinese records also report it as the "broom star".
In 837, Halley's Comet may have passed as close as 0.03 AU (3.2 million miles; 5.1 million kilometers) from Earth, by far its closest approach. Its tail may have stretched 60 degrees across the sky. It was recorded by astronomers in China, Japan, Germany, The Byzantine Empire, and the Middle East. In 912, Halley is recorded in the Annals of Ulster, which state "A dark and rainy year. A comet appeared."
The comet's appearance in 1066 was recorded on the Bayeux Tapestry.
In 1066, the comet was seen in England and thought to be an omen: later that year Harold II of England died at the Battle of Hastings; it was a bad omen for Harold, but a good omen for the man who defeated him, William the Conqueror. The comet is represented on the Bayeux Tapestry as a fiery star, and the surviving accounts describe it as appearing to be four times the size of Venus and shining with a light equal to a quarter of that of the Moon. Halley came within 0.10 AU of Earth at that time.
This appearance of the comet is also noted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Eilmer of Malmesbury may have seen Halley previously in 989, as he wrote of it in 1066: "You've come, have you? ... You've come, you source of tears to many mothers, you evil. I hate you! It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country. I hate you!"
The Irish Annals of the Four Masters recorded the comet as "A star [that] appeared on the seventh of the Calends of May, on Tuesday after Little Easter, than whose light the brilliance or light of The Moon was not greater; and it was visible to all in this manner till the end of four nights afterwards." Chaco Native Americans in New Mexico may have recorded the 1066 apparition in their petroglyphs.
The Adoration of the Magi (circa 1305) by Giotto, who purportedly modeled the star of Bethlehem on Halley, which had been sighted 4 years prior to this painting.
The 1145 apparition was recorded by the monk Eadwine. The 1986 apparition exhibited a fan tail similar to Eadwine's drawing. Some claim that Genghis Khan was inspired to turn his conquests toward Europe by the 1222 apparition. The 1301 apparition may have been seen by the artist Giotto di Bondone, who represented the Star of Bethlehem as a fire-colored comet in the Nativity section of his Arena Chapel cycle, completed in 1305. No record survives of the 1378 apparition.
1456 comet in Zodiac
In 1456, the year of Halley's next apparition, the Ottoman Empire invaded the Kingdom of Hungary, culminating in the Siege of Belgrade in July of that year. In a Papal Bull, Pope Calixtus III ordered special prayers be said for the city's protection. In 1470, the humanist scholar Bartolomeo Platina wrote in his Lives of the Popes that,
A hairy and fiery star having then made its appearance for several days, the mathematicians declared that there would follow grievous pestilence, dearth and some great calamity. Calixtus, to avert the wrath of God, ordered supplications that if evils were impending for the human race He would turn all upon the Turks, the enemies of the Christian name. He likewise ordered, to move God by continual entreaty, that notice should be given by the bells to call the faithful at midday to aid by their prayers those engaged in battle with the Turk.
Platina's account is not mentioned in official records. In the 18th century, a Frenchman further embellished the story, in anger at the Church, by claiming that the Pope had "excommunicated" the comet, though this story was most likely his own invention.
Halley's apparition of 1456 was also witnessed in Kashmir and depicted in great detail by Śrīvara, a Sanskrit poet and biographer to the Sultans of Kashmir. He read the apparition as a cometary portent of doom foreshadowing the imminent fall of Sultan Zayn al-Abidin (AD 1418/1420–1470).
After witnessing a bright light in the sky (which most historians have identified as Halley's Comet, visible in Ethiopia in 1456), Emperor Zara Yaqob, ruler from 1434 to 1468, founded the city of Debre Berhan (tr. City of Light) and made it his capital for the remainder of his reign.
Halley's periodic returns have been subject to scientific investigation since the 16th century. The three apparitions from 1531 to 1682 were noted by Edmond Halley, enabling him to predict its 1759 return. Streams of vapour observed during the comet's 1835 apparition prompted astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel to propose that the jet forces of evaporating material could be great enough to significantly alter a comet's orbit.
The 1910 approach, which came into naked-eye view around 10 April and came to perihelion on 20 April, was notable for several reasons: it was the first approach of which photographs exist, and the first for which spectroscopic data were obtained. Furthermore, the comet made a relatively close approach of 0.15 AU, making it a spectacular sight. Indeed, on 19 May, Earth actually passed through the tail of the comet. One of the substances discovered in the tail by spectroscopic analysis was the toxic gas cyanogen, which led astronomer Camille Flammarion to claim that, when Earth passed through the tail, the gas "would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet." His pronouncement led to panicked buying of gas masks and quack "anti-comet pills" and "anti-comet umbrellas" by the public. In reality, as other astronomers were quick to point out, the gas is so diffuse that the world suffered no ill effects from the passage through the tail.
The comet added to the unrest in China on the eve of Xinhai Revolution that would end the last dynasty in 1911. As James Hutson, a missionary in Sichuan Province at the time, recorded,
The people believe that it indicates calamity such as war, fire, pestilence, and a change of dynasty. In some places on certain days the doors were unopened for half a day, no water was carried and many did not even drink water as it was rumoured that pestilential vapour was being poured down upon the earth from the comet."
The 1910 visitation is also recorded as being the travelling companion of the first known English Muslim to make the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca. However, his explanation of its scientific predictability did not meet with favour in the Holy City.
The comet was also fertile ground for hoaxes. One that reached major newspapers claimed that the Sacred Followers, a supposed Oklahoma religious group, attempted to sacrifice a virgin to ward off the impending disaster, but were stopped by the police.
American satirist and writer Mark Twain was born on 30 November 1835, exactly two weeks after the comet's perihelion. In his autobiography, published in 1909, he said,
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.'
Twain died on 21 April 1910, the day following the comet's subsequent perihelion. The 1985 fantasy film The Adventures of Mark Twain was inspired by the quotation.
Halley's 1910 apparition is distinct from the Great Daylight Comet of 1910, which surpassed Halley in brilliance and was actually visible in broad daylight for a short period, approximately four months before Halley made its appearance.
1986 USSR miniature sheet, featuring Edmond Halley, Comet Halley, Vega 1, Vega 2, Giotto, Suisei (Planet-A)
Halley's 1986 apparition was the least favorable on record. The comet and Earth were on opposite sides of the Sun in February 1986, creating the worst viewing circumstances for Earth observers for the last 2,000 years. Halley's closest approach was 0.42 AU. Additionally, with increased light pollution from urbanization, many people failed to even see the comet. It was possible to observe it in areas outside of cities with the help of binoculars. Further, the comet appeared brightest when it was almost invisible from the northern hemisphere in March and April. Halley's approach was first detected by astronomers David Jewitt and G. Edward Danielson on 16 October 1982 using the 5.1 m Hale telescope at Mount Palomar and a CCD camera. The first person to visually observe the comet on its 1986 return was amateur astronomer Stephen James O'Meara on 24 January 1985. O'Meara used a home-built 24-inch telescope on top of Mauna Kea to detect the magnitude 19.6 comet. On 8 November 1985, Stephen Edberg (then serving as the Coordinator for Amateur Observations at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and Charles Morris were the first to observe Halley's Comet with the naked eye in its 1986 apparition.
The development of space travel gave scientists the opportunity to study the comet at close quarters, and several probes were launched to do so. The Soviet Vega 1 started returning images of Halley on 4 March 1986, and the first ever of its nucleus, and made its flyby on 6 March, followed by Vega 2 making its flyby on 9 March. On 14 March, the Giotto space probe, launched by the European Space Agency, made the closest pass of the comet's nucleus. There were also two Japanese probes, Suisei and Sakigake. The probes were unofficially known as the Halley Armada.
Based on data retrieved by Astron, the largest ultraviolet space telescope of the time, during its Halley's Comet observations in December 1985, a group of Soviet scientists developed a model of the comet's coma. The comet was also observed from space by the International Cometary Explorer. Originally International Sun-Earth Explorer 3, the probe was renamed and freed from its L1 Lagrangian point location in Earth's orbit to intercept comets 21P/Giacobini-Zinner and Halley.
Two Space Shuttle missions – the ill-fated STS-51-L (ended by the Challenger disaster) and STS-61-E – were scheduled to observe Halley's Comet from low Earth orbit. STS-51-L carried the Shuttle-Pointed Tool for Astronomy (SPARTAN-203) satellite, also called the Halley's Comet Experiment Deployable (HCED). STS-61-E was a Columbia mission scheduled for March 1986, carrying the ASTRO-1 platform to study the comet. Due to the suspension of America's manned space program after the Challenger explosion, the mission was canceled, and ASTRO-1 would not fly until late 1990 on STS-35.
Halley's Comet observed in 2003 at 28 AU from the Sun
On 12 February 1991, at a distance of 14.4 AU (2.15×109 km) from the Sun, Halley displayed an outburst that lasted for several months, releasing a cloud of dust 300,000 km across.The outburst likely started in December 1990, and then the comet brightened from magnitude 24.3 to magnitude 18.9. Halley was most recently observed in 2003 by three of the Very Large Telescopes at Paranal, Chile, when Halley's magnitude was 28.2. The telescopes observed Halley, at the faintest and farthest any comet has ever been imaged, in order to verify a method for finding very faint trans-Neptunian objects. Astronomers are now able to observe the comet at any point in its orbit.
The next predicted perihelion of Halley's Comet is 28 July 2061, when it is expected to be better positioned for observation than during the 1985–1986 apparition, as it will be on the same side of the Sun as Earth. It is expected to have an apparent magnitude of −0.3, compared with only +2.1 for the 1986 apparition. It has been calculated that on 9 September 2060, Halley will pass within 0.98 AU (147,000,000 km) of Jupiter, and then on 20 August 2061 will pass within 0.0543 AU (8,120,000 km) of Venus. In 2134, Halley is expected to pass within 0.09 AU (13,000,000 km) of Earth. Its apparent magnitude is expected to be −2.0.