Where Is Halley’s Comet? Why 1986’s ‘Giant Snowball’ Will Cause Streaks Of Light This Month And When We Will See It Return

Sure, we’ve all now heard about the mega comet heading into the solar system, but even C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein) is going to have to go a long way to reach the iconic status of 1P/Halley.

Halley’s Comet is the most famous comet of all. It measures nine miles by five miles/15 km by 8 km wide, which may be nothing on the mega-comet’s estimated 80 miles/128 km diameter, but it’s still a very big deal. It’s the only naked eye comet that can appear twice in one human lifetime.

But why is it suddenly in the news? It’s because of what it left in the solar system last time it was here.

MORE FROM FORBESIt Was Last Seen In 1986 But Halley’s Comet Will This Week Make Its Mark With A ‘Shooting Star’ Display

When Halley’s comet was last seen

Classed as a short-period comet, it was last seen in the inner solar system in 1986 and, before that, in 1910. In fact it’s been observed every 75 years since 240 BC, though only in 1705 did English astronomer Edmund Halley work out that the same bright object that kept returning to the night sky.

Sadly, Halley never got to see the comet that bears his name. He died 16 years before its 1758 appearance, which he had accurately predicted using historical observations.

When Halley’s comet is coming back

So when is Halley’s comet next paying us a visit? That won’t be until 2061—by which time NASA’s new mission to Uranus will likely be wrapping-up—though it should be a much better show than in 1986 because this time Earth will be closer to the comet. So it should be a brighter object—as bright as the brightest star Sirius, some say.

The Uranus connection is ironic because on January 24, 1986—just as Halley’s Comet was last at its closest to the Sun—NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft conducted a flyby of Uranus for humanity’s first and only glimpse of the “Bull’s Eye” planet.

MORE FROM FORBESSee The Jaw-Dropping New 83 Megapixel Photo Of The Sun Sent Back From A Spacecraft Halfway There

Where Halley’s comet is right now

Can you find Halley’s comet in the night sky? Not physically see it, of course—it’s about 35 au distant (35 times the Sun-Earth distance), which is roughly the distance from Earth to dwarf planet Pluto—but can you locate where it is? At this precise moment it’s in the constellation of Hydra, but close to bright star Procyon in the constellation of Canis Minor.

You can find Procyon—the eighth brightest star in the northern hemisphere’s night sky—by looking to the southwest sky this week immediately after sunset. You’ll be able to clearly see the “Winter Triangle” of three bright stars—Sirius, Betelgeuse and, highest above the horizon, Procyon.

The position of Halley’s comet is really close to the apparent position of Procyon, though of course the comet is much closer. Procyon is 11.5 light-years away.

The Eta Aqaurid and Orionid meteor showers

If it’s not here right now then how is it causing “shooting stars” in the night sky?

In April/May and October each year Earth moves through streams of particles left in the inner Solar System by Halley’s Comet from that last pass in 1986.

The Eta Aquariids is a meteor shower that last from April 19 to about May 28 and peaks on May 5/6 each year. It produces about 10-30 “shooting stars” each hour as seen from the northern hemisphere and up to 60 from the southern hemisphere.

It’s going on right now just as the Lyrids meteor shower is peaking.

Running from October 2 through November 7 is the Orionids meteor shower, peaking on October 21/22 when observers can expect to see about 20 “shooting stars” per hour after midnight.

MORE FROM FORBESIn Photos: See The Jaw-Dropping New Images Of Jupiter And Its Lava-Spewing Moon Just Back From NASA’s Juno 463 Million Miles Away

What’s going to happen to Halley’s comet?

Though it returns to the inner solar system every 75.3 years on average, that can change to between 74 to 79 years because Jupiter and Saturn’s gravity can alter its orbit.

Indeed, some calculate that its close approaches to Jupiter and Venus in future will mean that Halley’s Comet will one day be ejected from the Solar System altogether … perhaps to become an interstellar interloper like ‘Oumuamua. Others think it could evaporate within 25,000 years, or collide with something.

So catch a “shooting star” from the solar system’s (for now) most famous comet by getting yourself outside around midnight, particularly around May 5/6. If there’s a clear sky and you’ve got the patience then you may just see a speck of dust from Halley’s comet put on a show.

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.

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