A brief history of comets: From Halley's discovery to the Rosetta landing

Close-up reconstructed-colour image of the surface of comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/CC-A.

First published on 28th October 2014. Last updated on 5th August 2017 by Dr Helen Klus

Comets have been documented for thousands of years[1a], yet there's still a lot we don't know about them. We don't know what their surface is composed of, how thick their crust is, and how much frozen water is contained beneath. We also don't know what types of organic chemicals comets contain.

Scientists are particularly interested in these questions since comets often collide with planets, and so it's theorised that they could 'seed' planets with oceans and amino acids, the 'building blocks of life'.

These questions could be answered by landing a spacecraft onto the surface of a comet, something the European Space Agency (ESA) plans to do in less than two weeks[2].

1. Comets throughout history

Thousands of years ago, the motion of comets seemed erratic and unpredictable compared to the motion of the Sun, Moon, five visible planets, and the stars. This may be why they were often associated with bad luck or messages from God[1b].

Comet Hale-Bopp

Comet Hale-Bopp as seen from Earth in 1997. Image credit: Philipp Salzgeber/CC-SA.

The erratic behaviour of comets also led people to assume that they originated from inside of the Earth's atmosphere. Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe disproved this in the late 1500s.

Tycho measured the parallax of the Great Comet of 1577, and calculated that the comet was at least four times further away than the Moon[3]. The fact that individual comets can reappear, because they are orbiting the Sun in elongated elliptical orbits, was not proven until the 1700s. German astronomer Georg Samuel Dörffel first suggested this idea in 1681[4].

English natural philosopher Isaac Newton showed how this was possible six years later, when he published his laws of gravitation[5]. Newton believed that comets were rocky objects that contain ice, which vaporises when it's heated by the Sun, creating the comet's tail.

In 1705, English astronomer Edmond Halley looked at all of the documented appearances of comets, and tried to derive their orbital parameters using Newton's method. This led him to predict that the comets of 1531, 1607, and 1682, were actually all the same object, which would reappear about 75 years after its last appearance[6].

Halley became the first person to successfully predict the return of a comet when the comet reappeared in 1759. This comet has since been known as Halley's Comet[7].

The Mawangdui silk

The Mawangdui silk, showing the shapes of comet tails and the disasters associated with them, compiled in ~300 BCE. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Public domain.

The Bayeux Tapestry showing Halley's Comet

Halley's Comet depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, completed in the 1070s. Image credit: Myrabella/Public domain.

The link between comets and meteor showers was proven in the late 1800s, when Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli showed that the Perseid meteor shower, which occurs every August, is caused by the path of the Earth travelling through debris left by the comet Swift-Tuttle[8]. This led people to think of comets as having surfaces covered in small rocks, below a layer of ice.

In the 1950s, American astronomer Fred Lawrence Whipple suggested that comets are actually composed of more ice than rock, and contain frozen water, carbon dioxide, and ammonia[9][10][11]. Whipple's theory was supported by observations made by spacecraft launched in the latter half of the century.

Over 5000 comets have now been observed orbiting the Sun[12], and 11 comets have been observed orbiting stars outside of the Solar System[13][14].

We now know that the nuclei of comets are mostly composed of ice, which vaporises when the comet is close to the Sun. This forms a bright atmosphere of vapour, which is made of charged particles called ions, and dust particles, which can be composed of silicates, hydrocarbons, and ice. This atmosphere is known as a coma[15].

The nuclei of observed comets range from tens of metres to about 60 km in length. The coma creates a shell around the nucleus that can be millions of km wide, and is surrounded by an even larger shell composed of hydrogen[16].

The tails of a comet are also produced by interactions between the comet and the Sun, with the dust and vapour creating two separate tails. Both tails always point away from the Sun, but the charged particles react more strongly to the Sun's magnetic field and the solar wind, making it point directly away from the Sun. Dust particles are less affected by the Sun, and so the direction of the dust tail is curved by the orbit of the comet. The tails of a comet can extend for hundreds of millions of km[17].

Diagram of a comet showing the dust tail and the ion tail.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD/Public domain.

Diagram of a comet orbiting the Sun. Both tails get bigger the closer they are to the Sun, and both point away from the Sun. The ion tail points directly away, and the dust tail is curved towards the path of the orbit.

Image credit: NASA/Public domain.

Asteroids can be distinguished from comets because they do not have enough material capable of vaporising when they are close to the Sun, and so do not produce a coma, but the line between asteroids and comets is ambiguous. This is because comets will eventually lose all of their volatile material. They are then known as 'extinct' comets[18]. Volatile material has also been observed on objects in the asteroid belt, with water vapour detected on the dwarf planet Ceres in January 2014[19].

The origin of comets can be determined from their orbital parameters. Comets that take less than 200 years to orbit the Sun are thought to originate from the Kuiper belt[20a]. The Kuiper belt exists beyond the orbit of Neptune and was hypothesised by Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper in 1951[21]. It's now thought to contain about 1000 billion comets[20b].

Diagram showing the Oort cloud, the Kuiper belt is deep inside, and the planets orbit the Sun from within the Kuiper belt.

Artists' impression of the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Public domain.

Comets with periods longer than 200 years are thought to originate from the Oort cloud. The Oort cloud is a spherical cloud of comets that orbit the Sun from over 1.5 light-years from the edge of the Kuiper belt. This is a third of the distance to the closest extrasolar star, Proxima Centauri[22a].

Estonian astronomer Ernst Öpik first suggested that long-period comets may originate from the Oort cloud in 1932[23], and this idea was extended by Dutch astronomer Jan Oort in 1950[24]. The Oort cloud is thought to contain hundreds of billions of comets[22b].

2. Missions to comets

NASA and the ESA launched the first spacecraft to fly past a comet, ICE (International Cometary Explorer), in 1978. Its primary mission was to study the interaction between the Earth's magnetic field and the solar wind. ICE's mission was extended, and it flew through the tail of the comet Giacobini-Zinner, almost 8000 km from the comet's nucleus, in 1985. It flew through the tail of Halley's Comet, from a distance of about 28 million km, the following year.

There were five missions launched in the 1980s that also observed Halley's Comet in 1986. The Soviet Unions' Vega 1 and Vega 2 were launched in 1984 and, after completing their primary mission to Venus, they flew past Halley's Comet from a distance of about 9000 km.

The Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, now a division of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), launched the Sakigake and Suisei spacecraft in 1985. The former came within 7 million km of Halley's Comet, and the later passed within 150,000 km.

Finally, the ESA's Giotto spacecraft, which was also launched in 1985, travelled within 600 km of Halley's Comet. Its mission was extended in 1992, when it came within 200 km of the comet Grigg-Skjellerup. Its camera had been destroyed during its first mission and so it didn't obtain any new images, but it did measure the magnetic field strength of both comets.

Halley's Comet, image from Vega 1

Halley's Comet, image from Vega 1. Image credit: NASA/Public domain.

Halley's Comet, image from Vega 2

Halley's Comet, image from Vega 2. Image credit: NASA/Public domain.

Halley's Comet, image from Giotto

Halley's Comet, image from Giotto. Image credit: ESA/CC-A.

The observations of Halley's Comet in 1986 confirmed Whipple's theory. They showed that the surface of Halley's Comet is mostly composed of rock and dust, and the atmosphere is mostly composed of dust and water, as well as carbon dioxide, and ammonia[25].

In the 1990s, two more spacecraft were launched that would go on to observe comets. These were NASA's Deep Space 1 and NASA's Stardust spacecraft. Deep Space 1's primary mission was to observe an asteroid, but its mission was extended and it flew past the comet Borrelly, from about 2000 km from the nucleus, in 2001.

Stardust's primary mission was to collect samples of cosmic dust, and dust from the comet Wild, which it did in 2004, coming within about 200 km of the comet's nucleus. It also travelled within about 200 km of the nucleus of the comet Tempel in 2011.

Stardust's dust samples were returned to Earth in 2006. These were found to contain a number of organic compounds, including glycine, an amino acid[26]. Amino acids are important to all life forms on Earth, as chains of amino acids make up proteins. DNA contains information about which particular amino acid chains to build, and this is why amino acids are sometimes referred to as the 'building blocks of life'. The Miller-Urey experiment, which was conducted by American chemists Stanley Miller and Harold Urey in 1953, had previously shown that amino acids can be produced relatively easily in nature[27].

Comet Borrelly

Comet Borrelly, image from Deep Space 1. Image credit: NASA/Public domain.

Comet Wild

Comet Wild, image from Stardust. Image credit: NASA/Public domain.

Comet Tempel

Comet Tempel, image from Stardust. Image credit: NASA/Public domain.

Three more missions to comets were launched in the 2000s. The first, NASA's CONTOUR (COmet Nucleus TOUR) spacecraft, was launched in 2002, and was planning to visit at least two comets, but NASA soon lost contact with the spacecraft and the mission was a failure.

NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft was launched in 2005. Deep Impact reached the comet Tempel six months after its launch. It then released almost 400 kg of copper, which crashed into the comet at just over 10 km/s (37,000 km/h). This created the same amount of energy as almost 5 tonnes of TNT, and produced a 150-metre wide crater. The resulting explosion was imaged by the spacecraft from about 500 km away.

The Deep Impact mission showed that the nucleus of the comet Tempel is spongy, with lots of holes, and parts of the surface are very weak. The surface of Tempel is extremely black, providing one of the least reflective surfaces in the Solar System. This means that it easily absorbs heat, and is probably made of an organic material, like charcoal. The surface is covered in a fine layer of dust, which has the consistency of talcum powder. Ice exists about one metre beneath the surface, and is mostly composed of frozen water, and beneath this, frozen carbon dioxide[28].

Deep Impact also came within 700 km of the comet Hartley in 2010.

Gif showing an explosion on Comet Tempel. This was caused by Deep Impact.

Comet Tempel during the impact event caused by Deep Impact. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Paul Stephen Carlin/Public domain.

Comet Hartley

Comet Hartley, image from Deep Impact.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD/Public domain.

Finally, the ESA's Rosetta spacecraft was launched in 2004, and flew past Mars and two asteroids before reaching the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August 2014. It's currently in orbit, making it the first spacecraft to orbit a comet.

Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, image from Rosetta. Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/CC-A.

Close-up of Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, image from Rosetta. Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/CC-A.

The Rosetta's lander, Philae, is scheduled to detach from the Rosetta spacecraft on the 12th November, landing about 7 hours later. It will approach the comet at less than 4 km/h and detach two harpoons to prevent it bouncing off the surface, before securing itself with drills. It can then begin transmitting data from the comet's surface.

It will remain attached to the comet as it passes by the Sun, from November 2014 until December 2015. At this point, the mission will end and the spacecraft will return samples of the comet's surface to the Earth.

You can track Rosetta's progress here.

3. References

  1. (a, b) NASA, 'Comets in Ancient Cultures', last accessed 01-06-17.

  2. ESA, 'ESA confirms the primary landing site for Rosetta', last accessed 01-06-17.

  3. Ford, D., 2014, 'The Observer's Guide to Planetary Motion: Explaining the Cycles of the Night Sky', Springer.

  4. Eicher, D. J., 2013, 'COMETS!: Visitors from Deep Space', Cambridge University Press.

  5. Newton, I. and Motte, A. (trans), 1846 (1687), 'The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy', Daniel Adee.

  6. Halley, E., 1705, 'Astronomiae cometicae synopsis' ('A synopsis of the astronomy of comets'), Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London, 24.

  7. Messier, M. and Maty, M., 1765, 'A Memoir, Containing the History of the Return of the Famous Comet of 1682, with Observations of the Same, Made at Paris, at the Marine Observatory, in January, February, March, April, May, and the Beginning of June, 1759', Philosophical Transactions, 55, pp.294-325.

  8. Schiaparelli, M. J. V., 1867, 'Sur la relation qui existe entre les cometes et les étoiles filantes' ('On the relationship between comets and shooting stars'), Astronomische Nachrichten, 68, pp.331-334.

  9. Whipple, F. L., 1950, 'A Comet Model. I. The acceleration of Comet Encke', Astrophysical Journal, 111, pp.375–394.

  10. Whipple, F. L., 1951, 'A Comet Model. II. Physical Relations for Comets and Meteors', Astrophysical Journal, 113, pp.464-474.

  11. Whipple, F. L., 1955, 'A Comet Model. III. The Zodiacal Light', Astrophysical Journal, 121, pp.750-770.

  12. Duncan M. A., Quinn T. H., and Tremaine S., 1988, 'The origin of short-period comets', Astrophysical Journal, 328, pp.69-73.

  13. Welsh, B. Y. and Montgomery, S., 2013, 'Circumstellar Gas-Disk variability around A-type stars: the detection of exocomets?', Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 125, pp.759.

  14. Kiefer, F., et al, 2014, 'Exocomets in the circumstellar gas disk of HD 172555', Astronomy & Astrophysics, 561, pp.10.

  15. NASA, 'What is a Comet?', last accessed 01-06-17.

  16. Fernández, Y. R., 2002, 'The nucleus of comet Hale-Bopp (C/1995 O1): Size and activity', in 'Cometary Science after Hale-Bopp', Springer.

  17. NASA, 'Comets', last accessed 01-06-17.

  18. HubbleSite, 'Comets & Asteroids', last accessed 01-06-17.

  19. Kuppers, M., et al, 2014, 'Localized sources of water vapour on the dwarf planet (1) Ceres', Nature, 505, pp.525-525.

  20. (a, b) NASA, 'Kuiper Belt: In Depth', last accessed 01-06-17.

  21. Kuiper, G. P. and Hynek, J. A. (ed), 1951, 'Origin of the Solar system' in 'Astrophysics: a topical symposium commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Yerkes Observatory and a half century of progress in astrophysics', McGraw-Hill.

  22. (a, b) NASA, 'Oort Cloud: In Depth', last accessed 01-06-17.

  23. Öpik, E., 1932, 'Note on stellar perturbations of nearly parabolic orbits', Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 67, pp.169-183.

  24. Oort, J. H., 1950, 'The structure of the cloud of comets surrounding the Solar System and a hypothesis concerning its origin', Bulletin of the Astronomical Institutes of the Netherlands, 11, pp.91-110.

  25. Sagdeev, R. Z., Elyasberg, P. E., and Moroz, V. I., 1988, 'Is the nucleus of Comet Halley a low density body?', Nature, 331, pp.240-242.

  26. Cook J., et al, 2008, 'Compound-Specific Isotope Analysis of Amino Acids for Stardust-Returned Samples', NASA Technical Report.

  27. Miller, S. L., 1953, 'A production of amino acids under possible primitive earth conditions', Science, 117, pp.528-529.

  28. A'Hearn, M. F., et al, 2005, 'Deep impact: excavating comet Tempel 1', Science, 310, pp.258-264.

Back to top

The Star Garden is a science news and science education website run by Dr Helen Klus.

How we came to know the cosmos covers the history of physics focusing on space and time, light and matter, and the mind. It explains the simple discoveries we made in prehistoric times, and how we built on them, little by little, until the conclusions of modern theories seem inevitable. This is shown in a timeline of the universe.

The Star Garden covers the basics for KS3, KS4, and KS5 science revision including SATs, GCSE science, and A-level physics.