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10 April 2016

The Sunday Break: A strange star in the sky...

2016 is the 950th Anniversary of the Battle of Hastings - it is also the anniversary of a comet appearign in the night sky... There's a saying: 'its not what you know but who you know...' and I happen to know the eminent astronomers Nigel Henbest and Heather Couper. So I'm going to leave it to Nigel to tell you about Halley's Comet - and a few other Spacey things!

Nigel Henbest is an internationally acclaimed science populariser, specialising in astronomy and space. His books and articles have been published around the world, and his TV productions have gained awards in Britain and in the US. He has recently been appointed an Honorary Professor at the University of Dundee. He’s also a Future Astronaut with Virgin Galactic...

From Halley’s Comet to Virgin Galactic...

Springtime, exactly 950 years ago. Saxons in England are nervously awaiting news from Normandy, where an invasion is plotted. And, into the heavens comes a strange sight...

A brilliant bloated star appears in the dawn sky of April 1066, trailing a strange luminous tail. It dives towards the Sun; then reappears in the dusk twilight at the end of the month, ever more luminous and foreboding.

Everyone knows a comet is a portent of doom. But who is in danger: King Harold of England, or the usurper Duke William?

It’s six months before the answer becomes clear, at the epochal Battle of Hastings. And then busy Norman seamstresses stitch the premonitory comet into the monumental Bayeux Tapestry, where Saxons stare upwards below the caption ISTIMIRANT STELLA: ‘They marvelled at the star.’... Bayeux Tapestry Halley's Comet
The Tapestry doesn’t really rank as a top-notch scientific paper, but we know a lot about this comet from assiduous astronomers in the Far East. For the Chinese, the sky was the mirror of the Earth, so any danger to the Emperor would be foreshadowed in the heavens. In their records, we read:

“In the third year of Ch’ih Ping, in the third month, on the day Ki Wei [2 April 1066], a broom star whose tail was about seven cubits appeared in the east sky in Pisces in the morning.” After passing the Sun, “on the Koei Wei [26 April] the broom star appeared with the vapour like a pint of flour... After 67 days the star and the vapour all disappeared.”

All around the world, comets have been feared. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, his wife Calapurna warns Caesar about a celestial apparition: “When beggars die, there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”

Fast forward to 1682, and to an entrepreneurial scientist who had no time for doom-laden superstition. Just as well, because Edmond Halley was on his honeymoon in Islington (as you do...) when he spotted a comet before retiring to bed. Halley's Comet
Halley’s mate Isaac Newton was devising an attractive new theory, where a force called gravity held the planets in orbit around the Sun. The same had to be true of comets, though their orbits were so elongated that they strayed way out into the depths of the Solar System. Newton got tired of computing the paths of comets, and he asked Halley to help.

Nowadays, of course, you can download a program to calculate orbits in less time than it takes to say “Edmond”. But Halley had to labour - with pencil and paper - for six weeks to calculate the orbit of a single comet. To his surprise, he found the same result turning up three times over: his honeymoon comet of 1682 was on the same track as comets seen in 1531 and 1607: clearly it was the same beast, returning every 75 to 76 years.

Time to stick his neck out. Halley predicted the comet would return in 1758 - long after he would be dead and buried. If he was correct, he wrote “candid posterity will not refuse to acknowledge that this was first discovered by an Englishman.”

It did; and they did: the faithful wanderer was dubbed “Halley’s Comet.” And we now know it was the same celestial tramp that appeared in the skies of 1066, eight orbits before it shone on Halley’s honeymoon.

Another four orbits on, and it was my turn. I wasn’t awaiting an invasion nor enjoying a honeymoon. Instead, I was flying over the Indian Ocean at 60,000 feet - at twice the speed of sound.

Yes, I - along with my colleague Heather Couper - was on the flight deck of Concorde, the incredible supersonic passenger plane. In the spring of 1986, the comet wasn’t putting on a great show as seen from Britain, so we were heading south - to New Zealand.

And the Concorde flight promised a grandstand view. But where was the comet? It seemed to have gone missing. Then I realised why: lying in the constellation Scorpius, Halley’s Comet was a small fuzz-ball right in front of the huge glowing haze of the Milky Way.

There was another problem, too. The comet was right in front of the plane, not visible through the passengers’ small and thick windows on either side. Not to worry, said the captain; we’ll zigzag over the Indian Ocean. On landing in Perth, he told us “that little manoeuvre used up an extra six tonnes of fuel!”

Our arrival into Auckland was perhaps even more spectacular than the comet. Two fighter jets from the Royal New Zealand Air Force, sent to escort us, only caught up with Concorde on our final approach. Every field around the airport was packed with parked cars: 60,000 people turned out to watch this once-in-a-lifetime arrival.

After descending to 15 feet, the captain decided on a bit of fun that he couldn’t exercise on his commercial flights from London to New York. He pulled back the stick. The beautiful bird, with her almost-empty tanks, was at her lightest; and the superpowered engines blasted us up into the sky. A serious g-force compressed us into our seats - almost as if we were taking off to the realm of Halley’s Comet.
[Helen: we occasionally saw Concorde coming in over North London when I lived in Walthamstow - I'm thrilled (and saddened) to say we watched her fly overhead on her last flight.]

That experience came back to me, just a few months ago. It was in the leafy suburbs of Philadelphia, and I was strapped into a small gondola at the end of the 25-foot arm of a giant centrifuge. “We’re taking you up to 6gs,” said my instructor. “It will feel as if you’ve got a baby elephant on your chest....”

Thirty years on from Halley’s swing past the Sun, the comet has now returned to the deep recesses of the Solar System. But I’m preparing to take my own celestial trip, on the comet’s coat-tails - and head into space, courtesy of Virgin Galactic.

As you’ve probably gathered, I’ve been an astro and space cadet since I was a kid. But I never thought that I could follow in the steps of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. I may not be landing on the Moon, but when Richard Branson set up Virgin Galactic a few years ago, it opened the portals for anyone to buy a ticket to space.

And so I am Future Astronaut Number 245. With six passengers on a flight, that’s not as far down the queue as it may seem: I should be soaring over the Earth in two or three years from now. In the meantime, there’s been the training.

just floating about...
As well as the centrifuge, to accustom us to the forces of blast-off and re-entry, I’ve been up on the “Vomit Comet”, a plane that flies up and down so steeply that you experience weightlessness for 30 seconds at a time. As the nickname suggests, some people feel queasy on the flight: my stomach was fine, but I managed to graze my scalp, and a friend said he saw a perfectly spherical drop of blood floating weightless above my head!

And my day job? Well I write about everything to do with the Cosmos and the history of astronomy, along with producing TV documentaries on space. As a kid, I could hardly have imagined that my passionate hobby would become my professional life. But there’s a huge demand out there, among the public, for anything to do with the Universe - as I find every time I go down the pub.

Publishers, too, are keen to jump on the bandwagon. My latest books (written with Heather Couper) cover everything from what you can see in the sky for yourself (Astronomy Bible) and celestial happenings throughout the current year (Philip’s Month-by-Month Stargazing 2016), to The Secret Life of Space, a behind-the-scenes exposé of how astronomers found out about the Universe, from the Stonehenge - actually a midwinter monument - to the present day.

Linking back to our celestial vagabonds, in The Secret Life of Space we explore a lot more about Halley’s Comet, Julius Caesar’s comet (it actually appeared after he died), and the amazing discoveries that the European spacecraft Rosetta is currently making, as it orbits close up and personal to a comet with the tongue-twisting name Churyumov-Geramisenko.

Yes - I did work out how to say that! As you can see, if you tune into my YouTube series Nigel Goes to Space!, where I also construct the Solar System from a bowl of fruit, an exercise ball and a flower-vase...

And if you’re waiting for Halley’s Comet to show its tail in our neck of the Solar System again, I’m afraid there’s bad news all round. On its next appearance, the celestial tramp will be faint and low in the summer twilight sky - and that’s not until July/August 2061!

Nigel Goes To Space - what is a comet?

And just for the record Nigel’s full title is:
Prof Nigel Henbest, BSc, MSci (Cantab), DSc (Hon), FRAS

Heather Couper :
Dr Heather Couper, CBE, is an international broadcaster and writer on astronomy, space and science.
She studied astrophysics at both Leicester and Oxford universities, and ran the Greenwich Planetarium for five years.  She now works entirely in the media.

Nigel's Website
Find Nigel on Facebook

Astronomy Bible 
Philip’s Month-by-Month Stargazing 2016 
The Secret Life of Space 

 Call Back Tomorrow to continue the April A-Z 
where I interview a variety of interesting fictional characters 

Next Week:
I to N


  1. While I am an avid star gazer, I have never yearned for outer space but I rather liked the Concorde chasing Comet anecdote :)

  2. Fascinating article, and I'm glad you included the picture of the tapestry. I used to do cross stitch and quilt with my grandmother so I really enjoy seeing needlework, especially pieces with historical significance.

    1. What amazed me about the Tapestry when I saw it several years ago was how vibrant the colours still are!

  3. How terrifying these things must have seemed in the days before we knew what they were. A comet in 976 also seemed to presage 'doom' - and famine and civil war followed. People were terrified. But reading this, it suddenly becomes not frightening, but interesting and scientific (although still largely incomprehensible to me, who cannot get her 'head round' space at all!)

    1. I wonder if the 'doom' prophecy came after October 1066 though - after all a star was a sign of hope and joy for the birth of Christ. Did the English think the comet was a symbol of doom for the Normans - who thought vice-versa of course!

  4. When I was a child, I wanted to be an astronomer. There's something about the immense mystery above us that I find very compelling. Then, when you add in the bizarre theories in modern physics, all you have to do is look upward to find yourself in the twilight zone.

    1. I've always been fascinated Mary - although limited by short sight and now failing sight. It is SO annoying that I now live in Devon where there are no street lights nearby and a sky studded with stars - and I can't see them clearly :-/

  5. I saw it ( think)!
    Late January 1986, we were lying in the cockpit of our sailboat--anchored behind Socorro Island in the Revillagigedo Archipelago 450 nm South of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico--staring wide-eyed up into the southern night sky at what we hoped was a faint Halley's Comet. Foreboding? A couple of days later, we learned through the buzz on the ham net about the tragic Challenger Space Shuttle explosion...
    If that time of year was wrong for us having seen the Comet, please don't take my memory away, Nigel; and thanks for a great article.

    Helen, you come up with the most wonderful things for us to read - and that on a Sunday!

    1. well not really Sunday, the post was prepared and scheduled! Nigel's really busy so might not be able to get back to answer comments, so your dream is safe!

  6. Great post. I saw the comet in Finsbury Park very clearly. I was amazed because rather stupidly I hadn't thought it would be that clear what it was with the naked eye. I was thrilled. Concorde was the most beautiful plane and used to fly over where I live now in SW London. Incidentally as a child growing up in Oxford I used to walk past Halley's - I'm not sure if it was his house or observatory near Hertford Bridge. Good luck with your space plans how very exciting!

    1. Thanks Victoria - I'll keep my blog readers up to date with Nigel's space exploits!

  7. Ooops, that was supposed to be a smiley face, not question marks. Sorry. I'll remember not to put emojis on next time.


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