I love me some comets.
I’ve seen quite a few in my time. Some were faint smudges in a big telescope’s eyepiece, some seen only in distant spacecraft images, and some so bright they were obvious and awesome to my naked eye.
They used to be considered harbingers, omens up for interpretation by mystics and people looking for reasons things happened the way they do. In reality, comets are just a class of objects in our solar system along with planets, asteroids, dust, and one biggish star.
Hmm. Did I say "just"? That’s unfair. They are gorgeous, interesting objects, worthy of study. And 100 years ago today — April 20, 1910 — we got a pretty good look at the most famous of them all, Comet Halley, as it passed the Earth at a distance of just 23 million km (14 million miles). It got so bright that it was obvious even when seen from cities. As geometry would have it, the Earth even passed through the comet’s tail, sparking fears of widespread death (cyanogen was detected in the comet, making people think it would poison them). It was the talk of the planet, featured in magazines and papers across the globe. For your history enjoyment, here is one of those articles from the 1910, transcribed by James Brooks. It gives a great flavor of the times.
To celebrate this remarkable centennial anniversary, I have put together Ten Things You Don’t Know About Comets. I imagine some readers will know some of these, and some will know all ten, but if you do you can still enjoy the pretty pictures — and make sure you click on them to embiggen ’em. And if you like this, I have several others, too (Ten Things You Don’t Know About… the Earth, Black Holes, Hubble, the Sun, Pluto, and the Milky Way), so check ’em all out and see how many things you don’t know.