I have spent a very pleasant few days wallowing in the 25th anniversary of ESA’s Comet Halley mission, Giotto. This small spacecraft stunned the world in 1986 when it returned the first images of a comet’s nucleus, the icy heart responsible for those magnificent tails that periodically stretch across the sky.
I remember watching the live TV coverage by Patrick Moore on the BBC during 1986, trying to make sense of the garish colour-coded images that came through live. Then, I held my breath as the signal was lost, the result of an inevitable collision with a 1-gram dust grain travelling at 68 kilometres per second.
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Halley’s comet was not discovered by Edmond Halley, but it was the first comet to have its return predicted.Halley used Newton’s newly published theory of universal gravitation to calculate the comet’s path and its expected return.Although Halley did not live to see his calculation vindicated, the comet that now bears his name did indeed return in 1758 as he had forecast.It was a turning point: science could now predict the future – well, certain aspects of it any way.
Edmond Halley is a central figure in my novel, The Sensorium of God, which is the second book of The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth trilogy. The more I research him, the more my admiration for Halley grows. He was the first person in the world to understand Newton’s work on gravity. Indeed, if it had not been for Halley, it is highly likely that Newton would never have published his work, or indeed not performed it in the first place. In either case, the enlightenment would not have taken place when it did.
History would just record how a haunted, unknown alchemist called Isaac Newton had the solution of all planetary and Earthly motion, but that he squirreled it away amongst his papers.Total speculation, of course, but in an alternative universe somewhere...
Anyway, enough daydreaming, you can read my article for ESA about Giotto here and you can watch a documentary about Giotto’s mission below. It was produced by the European Space Agency in collaboration with the BBC’s Horizon programme. If this doesn’t tick your nostalgia box, nothing will!
The Sensorium of God: The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth Book II will be published in the UK in the autumn this year. Meanwhile, you can order the first book in the trilogy here.