Encounter with Halley’s Comet!

By Dr. Sherwood B. Idso

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    Halley’s Comet is here. Have you seen it? If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, there is a good chance that you have, and probably within just the past few days. Now, however, it is behind the sun, hidden from our sight. It will reappear in late February, and this time it will shine even more brightly, especially to those who live in the Southern Hemisphere. If you have the opportunity, get a good look at the comet, for it will be seventy-six years before it returns.

    Scientific preparations to study the solar system’s most famous comet began years ago, when teams of researchers from several countries began to build special spacecrafts to intercept it. The first such experimental vessels were launched from Russia in December 1984. Code-named Vega 1 and Vega 2, these twin space probes were intended to study the atmosphere of Venus during a June 1985 flyby; then it was determined that a boost of energy from our sister planet’s gravity, and a consequent change of course, would send them on to where Halley’s Comet would be about nine months later. Vega 1 is now scheduled to pass within six thousand miles of the comet’s core on March 6, and Vega 2 is scheduled to approach within two thousand miles of its nucleus three days later.

    About this same time a Japanese spacecraft, code-named Planet A, will also photograph Halley’s Comet, but from a distance of about sixty thousand miles. Its longer-distance observations will be put in even greater perspective by data collected from a United States space shuttle orbiting the Earth.

    By far the most exciting encounter with the comet, however, will be that of the Giotto spacecraft, launched by the eleven-nation European Space Agency in July 1985 from French Guiana. This craft is programmed to pass within a mere three hundred miles of the sunward side of the comet’s core on the night of March 13–14. Its designers are well aware that such a close flyby will probably destroy the delicate instruments carried by the probe; but they are hoping that before its transmitters are silenced, Giotto will send valuable data back to Earth, data that may reveal many of the comet’s secrets. Is it really a “dirty snowball,” as many scientists believe? Or is it a more substantial rock mass, as others suggest? Soon we may know the answer as theories give way to facts.

    But why study comets at all? One reason that appeals to me is that the search for knowledge of such things is ordained of God, as indicated by His instruction to the Prophet Joseph Smith that we should all become knowledgeable of things “both in heaven and in the earth” (D&C 88:79). And for what purpose? It is because they testify of Him, as King David exulted: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (Ps. 19:1). Indeed, in speaking to Joseph Smith about the various heavenly bodies that we are privileged to observe, the Lord said that “any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power” (D&C 88:47). And to be sure that there was no misunderstanding on this important point, He immediately restated this great truth: “I say unto you, he hath seen him” (D&C 88:48). What greater testament than this can man have of his Creator!

    The days and weeks ahead will be momentous. Newspaper headlines and magazine covers will blazon the stories of the spacecrafts’ discoveries to the nations of the world, and radios and televisions will beam the results of their findings to the farthest corners of the earth. Believers and infidels alike will look up to the heavens and marvel at the mighty wonder of the firmament known to man as Halley’s Comet. For most of the human family it will be an unparalleled intellectual experience as scientists interpret the meanings of the millions of bits of information sent back to Earth from their probes. Latter-day Saints will share in this intellectual excitement, but they will also gain spiritual refreshment as they gaze upon this manifestation of the finger of God moving across the tapestry of space.

    Hail and farewell, Halley’s Comet. May your visit reveal much new truth and reinforce long-held testimonies.

    Illustrated by Rolland Sparks

    Computer-enhanced image of 1910 photograph of Halley’s Comet. (Photo courtesy National Optical Astronomy Observatories.)

    The orbit of Halley’s Comet; Aphelion: November 2023; Perihelion: February 1986