Tales from the Eyepiece: Halley's return

With Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova making its close approach to Earth this week, amateur astronomer Jonathan Powell looks back on the return of Comet 1P/Halley (Halley's Comet) in 1986, and how he let two opportunities for outreach pass him by.

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An image of Halley’s Comet taken on 8 March 1986 by W. Liller from Easter Island.
Credit: NASA/W. Liller - NSSDC's Photo Gallery (NASA)

There remain few things more exciting in the night sky than the arrival of a comet, but there’s something about Halley’s Comet that makes its return particularly special.

The 1986 return was greatly anticipated, although much of the astronomical community knew it wouldn’t be Halley’s finest.  First recaptured by the 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory on 16 October 16 1982 when still beyond the orbit of Saturn, this celestial marvel was once again set to adorn the inner Solar System during the coming years, with perihelion due date set for 9 February 1986.

Comets are the leftover fragments from the formation of our Solar System, consisting mainly of dust and ice; a giant snowball really, which upon encountering the warmth of a star like our Sun heats up to the point where some of its components burn off to form a tail.

During the 1986 return, the European Space Agency’s plucky little probe Giotto would go on to endure a brave encounter with the comet, along with Russia’s Vega 1 and Vega 2 craft. 

The prospect of Halley’s visit at national and local level was to receive a significant positive jolt, with televisions beaming images of the comet straight into the living rooms of millions, reaching a number so great that even those with just a fleeting curiosity in the workings of the Cosmos now sat up and paid attention. Local astronomical societies had a waiting audience. I recall with great fondness two of the more left of field items that duly shone brightly that year: that of the late Sir Patrick Moore’s own composition, a piece of music entitled Halley’s Comet March, but of more intrigue and fascination to me, Patrick’s Halley Hotline!

An amazing capture of Halley’s Comet and its long tail, taken by the now decommissioned Grand Prisme Objectif telescope in 1986.
Credit: ESO

It was Sir Edmund Halley who first determined the comet’s orbit in 1705, a 75 to 76-year orbit that may well have been established and in existence for literally thousands of years. The first known observation of the comet is dated at 239 B.C. During its 1986 apparition, it was for many the first comet they had ever witnessed, let alone a comet with such a pedigree.

However, my naivety as a teenager at the time to all that was going on around me meant that while I did indeed spot the fuzzy blob that was Halley’s Comet, I sadly missed out on some of the more important values. 

For one particular evening at a nearby gathering of amateur astronomers with their various observing equipment, I failed to draw together two important elements that presented themselves. As I edged rather precariously through an unlit narrow gap between walls at the side of a building to get to where everyone had gathered to observe, I walked past a young lad with his parents, stood behind a telescope, all seemingly waiting patiently in the darkness. Whilst I acknowledged that they were there, I did not offer any assistance to help or encourage him, or indeed welcome them all collectively.

That same evening, I bumped into a gentleman who informed me that he had seen Halley on the comet’s last return in 1910. Unbelievably, I did not stop to question him further. There in the flesh was the rarity of someone who had seen the comet twice, quite remarkable, but because I was so caught up in the moment, I failed to find out more from him, where he was when he saw it, who he with, and of course his age.

These two lapses taught me some serious lessons in later years, lessons that I hopefully rectified through a project I instigated to visit local schools and talk about astronomy, and also to join the AAE, Association for Astronomy Education, and spread the word!

The bottom line is that whenever you are involved with an astronomical society or occasionally perhaps bump into other lone astronomers, never pass up the chance to ask, to enquire, or to help. Our astronomical community can appear quite separated from other walks of life at times, and it is up to us to make sure our interest is kept alive not just by encouraging those just starting out, but by listening to more experienced amateurs, or those, like the in the case of the gentleman who saw Halley’s Comet in 1910, who have a story to tell.

In other words, don’t wait until 2061 when Halley next returns to listen to those around you who either want the t-shirt, or have already got it!


With an interest in astronomy since the early 1980s, Jonathan has been a freelance writer and broadcaster since 1985, with a regular monthly daytime slot on BBC Radio Wales. His main astronomical instrument is a pair of 20 x 80 binoculars.

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