See You in 2061: Halley's Comet's Comeback

~6 min

Imagine a 200,000-year-old celestial body made of dust and ice that travels through space and makes its grand appearance in the Earth's sky every 76 years. This is Halley's Comet, a wonder that has fascinated people for centuries! The comet is already on its way to Earth and will next appear in 2061. Want to know more about how Halley's Comet "invented" anti-comet pills or how you can see the comet's trail twice a year? Read on to learn more!


Why is Comet Halley so famous?

Halley's Comet returns repeatedly to the Earth's sky, easily visible to the naked eye. It fascinates astronomers and casual observers and takes its place in the list of great comets.

Arguably the most famous of all comets, it became the first comet whose return was predicted. Before that, everyone thought that comets could pass through our Solar System only once! However, in 1682, Edmund Halley used Isaac Newton's theories to figure out that the comet he saw was the same one seen in 1531 and 1607. He predicted that it would return in 1758. Halley didn't live to see it, but the comet did return and was named after him as Halley's Comet. The official name of the comet is 1P/Halley; the "P" stands for "periodic", indicating that it returns periodically, and the "1" means that it is the first comet identified as periodic.

The relatively predictable and short orbit is what made Comet Halley famous. But – as with most things in nature – the orbit of Comet Halley isn’t precisely predictable.

Comet Halley’s orbit

Halley's Comet is a short-period comet, which means it takes less than 200 years to orbit the Sun. If you think that is a long time, think again — there are long-period comets that orbit the Sun only once in 6 million years! Take, for example, C/1999 F1 (Catalina).

With an average of 76 years, 1P/Halley's orbit varies between 74 and 79 years due to gravitational influences from large planets like Jupiter (this gas giant can push or pull the comet from its orbit). The comet’s path is highly stretched: on a scale where 0 is a perfect circle, and 1 is a parabola, Halley’s Comet has 0.967! It can get as close to the Sun as 0.59 AU (between Mercury and Venus) and as far away as 35 AU (near Pluto).

Halley's Comet is a bit of a rebel in the Solar System — it has a retrograde orbit, moving opposite to most bodies here, with an inclination of 18 degrees to the ecliptic. It also boasts impressive speed, reaching 70.56 km/s (43.8 miles/s) during its 1910 close passage to Earth, though it slows to about 1 km/s (0.6 miles/s) at its farthest point from the Sun. It is not unusual, though: according to Kepler's second law of motion, a celestial body moves fastest when it is at the perihelion and slowest when it is at the aphelion.

Comet Halley's orbit

Twice a year, Earth crosses Halley's Comet's orbit, and we can see comet fragments burning up in our atmosphere. This event is called a meteor shower.

Comet Halley's meteor showers

Every May and October, Earth moves through Halley's leftover particles, creating the Eta Aquariid and Orionid meteor showers.

This is possible because, over thousands of years, Halley's Comet has left a trail of debris along its orbit around the Sun. That’s why the comet doesn’t need to be anywhere near the Earth or the Sun to produce a meteor shower. When Earth passes through this trail of comet debris, these tiny particles (often no larger than grains of sand or granules of gravel) collide with our atmosphere at high speeds and burn up, creating bright streaks of light in the sky — meteors.

By the way, comets aren't the only ones that produce meteor showers. Learn more about meteor showers and their parent bodies in the dedicated article.

What's the estimated remaining life of Halley's Comet?

Some people might think that if we see parts of Halley's Comet burning up in our atmosphere twice a year, it means the comet is gradually falling apart. This is true, but the process is not as rapid as one might think.

NASA estimates that each time Halley's Comet orbits the Sun, it loses about 1 to 3 meters (3 to 10 ft) of material from the surface of its nucleus. British astronomer David Hughes, by considering the comet's current mass and its estimated rate of mass loss per orbit, concluded that the comet has likely completed around 2,300 orbits around the Sun. It also could potentially survive for another 2,300 orbits. Considering each orbit takes about 76 years, we get roughly 175,000 years more for Halley’s Comet to live. But keep in mind that this is probably only a very rough estimate!

A more recent study highlights that Halley's Comet has a very unpredictable orbit, which makes its future path difficult to forecast even just 100 years ahead. This research also indicates that the comet could be ejected from the Solar System or possibly collide with another celestial body in as little as 10,000 years.

Comets are indeed dynamic and unpredictable. One thing we can say with certainty is that Halley's Comet is due to return in 2061!

Halley's Comet next approach

Halley’s Comet will reach its next closest point to the Sun on July 28, 2061. On its way toward the Sun, during the late spring and early summer, it will be visible in the morning sky and favor viewers in the Northern Hemisphere. The view from the Earth should be favorable, as the two objects will be on the same side of the Sun. We can only imagine what technologies would be used to study the comet by that time!

Comet Halley in the sky

Where is Comet Halley now?

Comet Halley has already passed aphelion on December 9, 2023, and is currently on its way to the Sun. It’s surely too dim to be visible, considering the comet is about 35 AU from us, but the most curious can find 1P/Halley’s location in the sky in the Sky Tonight app. Fun fact: it currently takes about 5 hours for light reflected from the comet to reach us.

To imagine 1P/Halley’s journey through the Solar System, here are the times when Halley’s Comet will cross the orbits of planets as it moves inbound toward the Sun. Remember that, as we said above, the comet moves faster the closer it gets to perihelion.

  • May 7, 2041: Neptune
  • May 1, 2053: Uranus
  • Dec 7, 2058: Saturn
  • June 25, 2060: Jupiter
  • May 16, 2061: Mars
  • June 19, 2061: Earth
  • July 9, 2061: Venus

Halley's Comet will again arrive at perihelion on July 28, 2061.

Did You Know?

  • Halley’s Comet inspired the Messier Catalog: In 1758, French astronomer Charles Messier, while searching for the comet predicted to return that year by Edmond Halley, spotted a fuzzy object in Taurus. Although it resembled a comet through his telescope, it didn’t move relative to the stars from night to night. This object, known as M1, became the first entry in Messier's catalog, which lists objects that could be mistaken for comets.

  • There’s a group known as Halley-type comets: This group unites atypical comets resembling Halley’s Comet — they have orbital periods between 20 and 200 years and orbits that can be highly inclined to the ecliptic. Typical periodic comets have an average inclination to the ecliptic of only ten degrees and an orbital period of just 6.5 years. Currently, there are more than 100 known Halley-type comets.

  • The first reliable comet observation of Halley's Comet dates back to 239 BC: On March 30, 239 BC, Chinese astronomers recorded the first documented passage of Halley's Comet, noted in the Shiji and Wenxian Tongkao chronicles.

  • In 1910, people bought anti-comet umbrellas to avoid 1P/Halley’s “poison”: When spectral analysis revealed poisonous gases like cyanogen and carbon monoxide in Halley’s Comet's tail in 1910, there was widespread panic. With Earth predicted to pass through the comet's tail, the yellow press claimed that these gases could wipe out all life. In response, people desperately bought anti-comet pills and umbrellas to protect themselves from the supposed threat.

For more crazy facts about great comets throughout history, try our quiz. You won't be disappointed!

Great Comets
What do comets have to do with Cognac and the American Civil War? 🥃A lot more than you'd think! Our quiz is packed with fun facts about the Great Comets. Get ready for a fun ride through time with these flashy space travelers! ☄️
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The Great Comet Halley: Bottom line

Halley's Comet, a 200,000-year-old celestial body made of dust and ice, orbits the Sun every 76 years. This ancient comet not only inspired the creation of the Messier Catalog but also gave rise to the concept of anti-comet merchandise in 1910. With its short-period orbit, Halley's Comet is both a scientific marvel and a cultural phenomenon.

This comet is a living history of astronomy, demonstrating not only the evolution of our understanding of cometary orbits but also the human response to celestial events. With its next appearance expected in 2061, Halley's Comet continues to be a reminder of the dynamic and ever-changing nature of our Solar System. You have the unique opportunity to locate the comet in the sky whenever you want using the free astronomy app Sky Tonight.