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Halley's Comet facts for kids

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Comet Halley
Lspn comet halley
Halley's Comet on 8 March 1986

Halley's Comet (Comet Halley) is a comet which comes round every 75 or 76 years. When it is near, it can be seen with the naked eye. It will return in 2061.

When the comet came close to the Earth in 1986, it was visited by several space-probes. The probe Giotto from the European Space Agency managed the closest approach to the comet.

The number of years that the comet finishes its full cycle can vary depending on the effect of another planet's gravitational pull.

In 1986, Halley's Comet was the first to be observed in detail by spacecraft. It gave the first data on the structure of a comet nucleus and how the coma (nebulous envelope around the core or nucleus) and the tail formed. These observations supported Fred Whipple's "dirty snowball" model. This correctly predicted that Halley would be composed of a mixture of volatile ices – such as water, carbon dioxide, ammonia, – and dust. The missions also adjusted these ideas. For example, it is now known that the surface of Halley is mostly dusty, non-volatile materials, and that only a small portion of it is icy.

Orbit and origin

Halley's Comet animation
The orbital path of Halley, against the orbits of the planets (animation)
Orionid meteor originating from Halley's Comet streaking the sky below the Milky Way and to the right of Venus

Halley's orbital period has varied between 74 and 79 years since 240 BC. The perihelion, the point in the comet's orbit when it is nearest the Sun, is 0.59 au (88 million km). This is between the orbits of Mercury and Venus. Its aphelion, or farthest distance from the Sun, is 35 au (5.2 billion km) (roughly the distance of Pluto). Unusual for an object in the Solar System, Halley's orbit is retrograde; it orbits the Sun in the opposite direction to the planets, or, clockwise from above the Sun's north pole.

Halley is classified as a periodic or short-period comet; one with an orbit lasting 200 years or less. This contrasts it with long-period comets, whose orbits last for thousands of years.

The orbits of the Halley-type comets suggest that they were originally long-period comets whose orbits were perturbed by the gravity of the giant planets and directed into the inner Solar System.

Structure and composition

Comet Halley close up-cropped
The nucleus of Halley's Comet, imaged by the Giotto probe in 1986. The dark coloration of the nucleus can be observed, as well as the jets of dust and gas erupting from its surface.

The Giotto and Vega missions gave planetary scientists their first view of Halley's surface and structure. Like all comets, as Halley nears the Sun, its volatile compounds (those with low boiling points, such as water, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and other ices) begin to sublimate from the surface of its nucleus. This causes the comet to develop a coma, or atmosphere, up to 100,000 kilometres (62,000 mi) across. Evaporation of this dirty ice releases dust particles, which travel with the gas away from the nucleus. Gas molecules in the coma absorb solar light and then re-radiate it at different wavelengths, a phenomenon known as fluorescence, whereas dust particles scatter the solar light. Both processes are responsible for making the coma visible. As a fraction of the gas molecules in the coma are ionized by the solar ultraviolet radiation, pressure from the solar wind, a stream of charged particles emitted by the Sun, pulls the coma's ions out into a long tail, which may extend more than 100 million kilometres into space. Changes in the flow of the solar wind can cause disconnection events, in which the tail completely breaks off from the nucleus.

Despite the vast size of its coma, Halley's nucleus is relatively small: barely 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) long, 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) wide and perhaps 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) thick. Its shape vaguely resembles that of a peanut shell. Its mass is relatively low (roughly 2.2 × 1014 kg) and its average density is about 0.6 grams per cubic centimetre (0.35 oz/cu in), indicating that it is made of a large number of small pieces, held together very loosely, forming a structure known as a rubble pile.


Before 1066

Babylonian tablet recording Halley's comet
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.

Chinese report of Halley's Comet apparition in 240 BC from the Shiji (史記)
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."

Paris1337 Horayot 10a
Possible report of Halley's Comet in the Talmud (MS Paris 1337).

In 837, Halley's Comet may have passed as close as 0.03 au (3.2 million miles; 5.1 million kilometres) 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; Emperor Louis the Pious observed this appearance and devoted himself to prayer and penance.


Comete Tapisserie Bayeux
Halley's Comet in 1066 depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry
Comet Halley from London on 1066-05-06
Halley's Comet seen from London on 6 May 1066 as simulated by Stellarium. The Moon, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are also visible.

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 and William the Conqueror claimed the throne. The comet is represented on the Bayeux Tapestry and described in the tituli as a star. Surviving accounts from the period 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.

Chaco Native Americans in New Mexico may have recorded the 1066 apparition in their petroglyphs.


Giotto - Scrovegni - -18- - Adoration of the Magi
The Adoration of the Magi (circa 1305) by Giotto, who purportedly modelled the star of Bethlehem on Halley, which had been sighted 4 years before that 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.


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 Callixtus 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.

PSM V76 D015 Halley comet in 1456
1456 comet in Zodiac

After witnessing a bright light in the sky which most historians have identified as Halley's Comet, Zara Yaqob, Emperor of Ethiopia 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.


In the Sikh scriptures of the Guru Granth Sahib, the founder of the faith Guru Nanak makes reference to "a long star that has risen" at Ang 1110, and it is believed by some Sikh scholars to be a reference to Halley's appearance in 1531.


Illustrations of prior comet appearances in
the January 1910 Popular Science Monthly magazine
1682 1759 1835
PSM V76 D017 Halley comet in 1682.png PSM V76 D017 Halley comet in 1759.png PSM V76 D018 Halley comet in 1835.png

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 it would return. One key breakthrough occurred when Halley talked with Newton about his ideas of the laws of motion. Newton also helped Halley get Flamsteed's data on the 1682 apparition. By studying data on the 1531, 1607, and 1682 comets, he came to the conclusion these were the same comet, and presented his findings in 1696.

One difficulty was accounting for variations in the comet's orbital period, which was over a year longer between 1531 and 1607 than it was between 1607 and 1682. Newton had theorized that such delays were caused by the gravity of other comets, but Halley found that Jupiter and Saturn would cause the appropriate delays. In the decades that followed, more refined mathematics would be worked on, notable by Paris Observatory; the work on Halley also provided a boost to Newton and Kepler's rules for celestial motions.


Halley's Comet - May 29 1910
A photograph of Halley's Comet taken during its 1910 approach
Halley's comet 1910
Halley in April 1910, from Harvard's Southern Hemisphere Station, taken with an 8-inch Bache Doublet
PSM V76 D020 Path of halley comet
Infographic from the January 1910 issue of Popular Science Monthly magazine, showing how Halley's tail points away from the Sun as it passes through the inner Solar System

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.

The comet added to the unrest in China on the eve of the Xinhai Revolution that would end the last dynasty in 1911.


Comet Halley
Halley's Comet in 1986
1986 Comet Halley
1986 USSR miniature sheet, featuring Edmond Halley, Comet Halley, Vega 1, Vega 2, Giotto, Suisei (Planet-A)
Halley path 1986
Daily motion across sky during the 1986 passage of Halley's Comet
Animation of 1P/Halley orbit - 1986 apparition
Animation of 1P/Halley orbit - 1986 apparition
      1P/Halley ·       Earth ·       Sun

The 1986 apparition of Halley's Comet was the least favourable on record. In February 1986, the comet and the Earth were on opposite sides of the Sun, creating the worst possible viewing circumstances for Earth observers during the previous 2,000 years. Additionally, increased light pollution from urbanization caused many people to fail in attempts to see the comet. With the help of binoculars, observation from areas outside cities was more successful. Further, the comet appeared brightest when it was almost invisible from the northern hemisphere in March and April 1986, with best opportunities occurring when the comet could be sighted close to the horizon at dawn and dusk, if not obscured by clouds.

In 1986, scientists had the opportunity to study the comet closely and several probes were launched to do so. The Soviet Vega 1 probe began returning images of Halley on 4 March 1986, captured the first-ever image of its nucleus, and made its flyby on 6 March. It was followed by the Vega 2 probe, 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 also were two Japanese probes, Suisei and Sakigake. Unofficially, the numerous probes became known as the Halley Armada.

Based on data retrieved by the largest ultraviolet space telescope of the time, Astron, during its Halley's Comet observations in December 1985, a group of Soviet scientists developed a model of the comet's coma. The comet also was observed from space by the International Cometary Explorer (ICE). Originally the International Sun-Earth Explorer 3, the spacecraft departed the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrangian point in order to intercept comets 21P/Giacobini-Zinner and Halley. ICE flew about 40.2 million km (25 million mi) from Halley's Comet on 28 March 1986.

Two U.S. Space Shuttle missions—STS-51-L and STS-61-E—had been scheduled to observe Halley's Comet from low Earth orbit. The STS-51-L mission carried the Shuttle-Pointed Tool for Astronomy (SPARTAN-203) satellite, also called the Halley's Comet Experiment Deployable (HCED). The mission ended in disaster when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in flight, killing all seven astronauts onboard. Scheduled for March 1986, STS-61-E was a Columbia mission carrying the ASTRO-1 platform to study the comet, but the mission was canceled following the Challenger disaster and ASTRO-1 would not fly until late 1990 on STS-35.

After 1986

ESO-Comet Halley at 28 AU-phot-27a-03-fullres
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 (190,000 mi) 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.

On 9 December 2023, Halley's Comet will reach the farthest and slowest point in its orbit from the Sun when it will be traveling at 0.91 km/s (2,000 mph) with respect to the Sun.


Animation of 1P/Halley orbit - 2061 apparition
Animation of 1P/Halley orbit - 2061 apparition
      Sun ·       Venus ·       Earth ·       Jupiter ·       1P/Halley

The next perihelion of Halley's Comet is 28 July 2061, when it will be better positioned for observation than during the 1985–1986 apparition, as it will be on the same side of the Sun as Earth. The closest approach to Earth will be one day after perihelion. It is expected to have an apparent magnitude of −0.3, compared with only +2.1 for the 1986 apparition. 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.


Halley will come to perihelion on 27 March 2134. Then on 7 May 2134, Halley will pass within 0.092 au (13,800,000 km) of Earth. Its apparent magnitude is expected to be −2.0.

Designation Year BC/AD Gap (years) Date of perihelion Visible duration Earth approach Description
1P/−239 K1, −239 240 BC 25 May 15–25 May First confirmed sighting.
1P/−163 U1, −163 164 BC 76 12 Nov Seen by Babylonians.
1P/−86 Q1, −86 87 BC 77 6 August 6–19 August Seen by the Babylonians and Chinese.
1P/−11 Q1, −11 12 BC 75 10 October August – 10 October 0.16 au Watched by Chinese for two months.
1P/66 B1, 66 66 78 25 January 25–26 January May be the comet described in Josephus's The Jewish War as "A comet of the kind called Xiphias, because their tails appear to represent the blade of a sword" that supposedly heralded the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD.
1P/141 F1, 141 141 75 22 March 22–25 March Described by the Chinese as bluish-white in colour. Described in Tamil literature and death of Chera (Yanaikatchai Mantaran Cheral Irumporai) king after appearance of comet.
1P/218 H1, 218 218 77 17 May 6 April – 17 May Described by the Roman historian Dion Cassius as "a very fearful star".
1P/295 J1, 295 295 77 20 April 7–20 April Seen in China, but not spectacular.
1P/374 E1, 374 374 79 16 February 13–16 February 0.09 au Comet passed 13.5 million kilometres from Earth.
1P/451 L1, 451 451 77 28 June 28 June – 3 July Appeared before the defeat of Attila the Hun at the Battle of Chalons. The 451AD orbital period was 79.29 years.
1P/530 Q1, 530 530 79 27 September 27 September – 15 November Noted in China and Europe, but not spectacular.
1P/607 H1, 607 607 77 15 March 15–26 March 0.09 au Comet passed 13.5 million kilometres from Earth.
1P/684 R1, 684 684 77 2 October 2 October – 26 November First known Japanese records of the comet. Seen in Europe and depicted 800 years later in the Nuremberg Chronicle. Attempts have been made to connect an ancient Maya depiction of God L to the event.
1P/760 K1, 760 760 76 20 May 20 May – 10 June Seen in China, at the same time as another comet.
1P/837 F1, 837 837 77 28 February 25–28 February 0.033 au Closest-ever approach to the Earth (5 million km). Tail stretched halfway across the sky. Appeared as bright as Venus.
1P/912 J1, 912 912 75 18 July 18–27 July Seen briefly in China and Japan.
1P/989 N1, 989 989 77 5 September 2–5 September Seen in China, Japan, and (possibly) Korea.
1P/1066 G1, 1066 1066 77 20 March January – 25 March 0.10 au Seen for over two months in China. Recorded in England and depicted on the later Bayeux tapestry which portrayed the events of that year.
1P/1145 G1, 1145 1145 79 18 April 15–19 April Depicted on the Eadwine Psalter, with the remark that such "hairy stars" appeared rarely, "and then as a portent".
1P/1222 R1, 1222 1222 77 28 September 10–28 September Described by Japanese astronomers as being "as large as the half Moon . . . Its colour was white but its rays were red".
1P/1301 R1, 1301 1301 79 25 October 22–31 October Seen by Giotto di Bondone and included in his painting The Adoration of the Magi. Chinese astronomers compared its brilliance to that of the first-magnitude star Procyon.
1P/1378 S1, 1378 1378 77 10 November 9–14 November Passed within 10 degrees of the north celestial pole, more northerly than at any time during the past 2000 years. This is the last appearance of the comet for which eastern records are better than Western ones.
1P/1456 K1, 1456 1456 78 9 June 8 January – 9 June Observed in Italy by Paolo Toscanelli, who said its head was "as large as the eye of an ox", with a tail "fan-shaped like that of a peacock". Arabs said the tail resembled a Turkish scimitar. Turkish forces attacked Belgrade.
1P/1531 P1, 1531 1531 75 26 August 26 August Seen by Peter Apian, who noted that its tail always pointed away from the Sun. This sighting was included in Halley's table.
1P/1607 S1, 1607 1607 76 27 October 27 October Seen by Johannes Kepler. This sighting was included in Halley's table.
1P/1682 Q1, 1682 1682 75 15 September 15 September Seen by Edmond Halley at Islington.
1P/1758 Y1, 1759 I 1758 76 13 March 13 March – 25 December Return predicted by Halley. First seen by Johann Palitzsch on 1758 December 25.
1P/1835 P1, 1835 III 1835 77 16 November August – 16 November First seen at the Observatory of the Roman College in August. Studied by John Herschel at the Cape of Good Hope.
1P/1909 R1, 1910 II, 1909c 1910 75 20 April 20 April – 20 May 0.151 au Photographed for the first time. Earth passed through the comet's tail on 20 May.
1P/1982 U1, 1986 III, 1982i 1986 76 9 February 9 February 0.417 au Reached perihelion on 9 February, closest to Earth (63 million km) on 10 April. Nucleus photographed by the European space probe Giotto and the Soviet probes Vega 1 and 2.
2061 75 28 July 28 July 2061 0.477 au Next return with perihelion on 28 July 2061 and Earth approach one day later on 29 July 2061
2134 73 27 March 27 March 2134 0.092 au Subsequent return with perihelion on 27 March 2134 and Earth approach on 7 May 2134
2209 75 3 February 3 February 2209 0.515 au Best-fit for February 2209 perihelion passage and April Earth approach

Interesting facts about Halley's Comet

  • Comet Halley is commonly pronounced rhyming with valley, or rhyming with daily.
  • The comet is named after Edmond Halley (1656–1742), an English astronomer, who in 1705 predicted the comet's return.
  • Halley's Comet was the first comet to be recognized as periodic. (Periodic means that it comes by Earth regularly.)
  • It is the only naked-eye comet that can appear twice in a human lifetime.
  • Halley has probably been in its current orbit for 16,000–200,000 years.
  • Halley is the most active of all the periodic comets.
  • 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.
  • The comet was used in an advertising campaign of Le Bon Marché, a well-known department store in Paris.
  • 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.'

    Twain died on 21 April 1910, the day following the comet's subsequent perihelion.

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See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Cometa Halley para niños

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