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Thursday, May 7, 2020

Fun Facts about Comets (& Halley’s Comet)


In early 1985, I was a young Field Engineer for an Oilfield Services Company, assigned to projects in remote areas of the Libyan Sahara. The desert is a great place to observe the sky as it is pitch black at night and the mostly flat landscape allows a 360-degree panoramic view of the stars and constellations of the Milky Way in unimaginable splendor. Early 1985 was also the period that marked the revisit of Halley’s comet to our part of the Solar System. The world was abuzz with anticipation and many postage stamps were issued by various sovereign governments to mark the event. Presented below are some of those stamps that were issued (from my collection).

Stamps from the Most Remote Parts of the World: Tristan Da Cunha

As comets originate from the most remote areas of our Solar System, I have decided to present a set of stamps commemorating the event that was issued by a jurisdiction that is considered by many to be the most remote inhabited location on Earth. Tristan da Cunha is a group of volcanic islands in the south Atlantic Ocean. It is the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world, lying approximately 1,511 miles (2,432 km) off the coast of Cape Town in South Africa, 1,343 miles (2,161 km) from Saint Helena and 2,166 miles (3,486 km) off the coast of the Falkland Islands. As of October 2018, the main island had 250 permanent inhabitants.

Tristan da Cunha is a British Overseas Territory with its own constitution. There is no airstrip of any kind on the main island, meaning that the only way of travelling in and out of Tristan is by boat. It takes approximately six-days for a one way trip by sea from South Africa. The 10p stamp presented directly below shows a section of the Bayeux Tapestry. This is discussed further in the section below on William the Conqueror.The 30p stamp presented below shows a view of Halley's comet from Inaccessible Island, one of the islands of the archipelago. I do not think much more is required to describe the remoteness of the area than the name accorded to the place itself by the people who live there!

A stamp from British Antarctic Territory:

Another remote location is the British Antarctic Territory (BAT). This is a sector of Antarctica claimed by the United Kingdom as one of its 14 British Overseas Territories. It comprises the region south of 60°S latitude and between longitudes 20°W and 80°W, forming a wedge shape that extends to the South Pole, overlapping the Antarctic claims of Argentina (Argentine Antarctica) and Chile (Chilean Antarctic Territory).

Halley's Comet 

Halley's Comet is arguably the most famous comet. It is a "periodic" comet and returns to Earth's vicinity about every 75 years, making it possible for a human to see it twice in his or her lifetime. The closest it has come to Earth was 4 million miles in 837 C.E. The last time it was here was in 1986 when it was about 38 million miles at its closest. It is projected to return in 2061.The comet is named after English astronomer Edmond Halley, who examined reports of a comet approaching Earth in 1531, 1607 and 1682. He concluded that these three comets were actually the same comet, returning over and over again and he predicted the comet would return again in 1758. According to the European Space Agency, the first known observation of Halley's comet took place in 239 B.C. with Chinese astronomers of the day recording its passage in the Shih Chi and Wen Hsien Thung Khao chronicles. It is reported that the Chinese astronomers called comets 'Broom Stars'.

A stamp from the Maldives:

This stamp from the Republic of Maldives (a small island nation located in the Arabian Sea / Indian Ocean) honours Sir Edmond Halley. Interestingly, it also depicts the famous Stonehenge prehistoric monument which is located in Wiltshire, England and which was built about 2500 B.C.E. There is speculation that Stonehenge has astronomical significance but that remains a debated point.

William the Conqueror and Halley’s Comet

One of Halley's most famous appearances occurred shortly before the 1066 invasion of England by William the Conqueror. It is said that King Harold II took the appearance of the comet as a bad omen and indeed, he was killed. William the Conqueror (of Normandy) believed the comet heralded his success. He won the battle and pronounced himself King of England. This probably explains why an image of the comet was woven into the Bayeux Tapestry (The Bayeux Tapestry tells one of the most famous stories in British history – that of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, particularly the Battle of Hastings, which took place on 14 October 1066).

A stamp from the British island of Jersey: 

The stamp below from Jersey tells some of the story of the Battle of Hastings.

A stamp from the Kingdom of Lesotho:

Lesotho is a land-locked kingdom encircled by South Africa. It is only one of three independent states that is completely surrounded by another country (the others being San Marino and the Vatican). The stamp below also captures the victory of William the Conqueror in 1066.

Giotto and Halley's Comet

During the period 1986 - 1990, my work took me to Italy. The Italians are proud of their history, art and culture and in 1985 - 86, nothing made them more proud than the fact that the main spacecraft sent into space to rendezvous with Halley's comet was named 'Giotto'. Giotto was a robotic spacecraft mission launched by the European Space Agency. In 1985-86, the spacecraft flew by and studied Halley's Comet and in doing so became the first spacecraft to make close-up observations of a comet. At its closest point, it was a mere 376 miles from the comet's nucleus. The space probe itself was called 'Giotto' after the Italian painter, Giotto di Bondone. In a painting by the artist in 1304 called the 'Adoration of the Magi', he shows Halley's comet as representing the 'Star of Bethlehem'. It is likely that the 1301 return of Halley's comet to the Sun influenced this representation.

More Stamps Featuring Halley's Comet

The stamp shown below (issued by Montserrat, a British Overseas Territory located in the Caribbean Sea) presents the painting, the 'Adoration of the Magi' by Giotto.

Stamps featuring the Giotto space robot:

A series of stamps Issued by the Maldives:

Giotto was not the only space probe that intercepted the path of Halley's comet in 1985-86. NASA (USA), the USSR and Japan all launched space probes which carried out missions to observe and study the comet. The stamps below present the efforts of these countries.

Mark Twain and Halley’s Comet

The name ‘Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ may not be well publicized but he is known as the ‘father of American Literature’. He wrote the epics, ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ and ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ under the pen name, ‘Mark Twain’.

What does Mark Twain have to do with a blog post on comets?

Not known to many is the fact that Mark Twain was born on 30 November 1835 during a period when Halley’s Comet could be brightly seen in the heavens above our planet. He was quoted as saying; “I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again, and I expect to go out with it.” Sure enough, he died on April 21, 1910, just as the comet made its next pass within sight of Earth.

The stamp shown below captures the famous quote of Mark Twain about his birth and his impending death. It is issued by the Commonwealth of Dominica. The Commonwealth of Dominica is located in the eastern Caribbean.

A stamp issued by Great Britain:

The stamp below (issued by Great Britain speaks about the possibility of a human being visited by the comet 'twice in a lifetime' (as was the case with Mark Twain).

Stamps issued by Anguilla:

Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) is also honoured in the $4.00 stamp below, issued by Anguilla (a British Overseas Territory located in the eastern Caribbean). Many sources believe that Anguilla was named by Christopher Columbus.

Davy Crockett and Halley's Comet

Halley's comet of 1835 heralded the birth of Mark Twain but it also marked the death of another American icon. In 1835, Davy Crockett narrowly lost an election for a seat in the American Congress for the state of Tennessee. This loss caused him to seek adventure elsewhere and he traveled to Texas, where a few months later, he would perish at the Alamo, during the Texas Revolution. The stamp issued below by the Republic of Uganda, a landlocked nation in East Africa, commemorates this icon, the event and Halley's comet.

The First Photographs of Halley's Comet

It is generally accepted that the camera was invented by French inventor Joseph Nicephore Niepce in 1816 but it was only in 1910 that the first photographs of Halley's comet were actually captured.

Stamps from Belize:

The stamp on the left, issued by Belize, a country in Central America (showing a series of vertical photographs of the comet on various dates in 1910), honors the photographs taken from Diamond Head in Hawaii by Ferdinand Ellermen.


All stamps shown above are from my personal collection and were photographed using a HUAWEI P30 telephone / camera.

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