Comet Halley, parent of 2 meteor showers
The famous comet 1P/Halley – aka Halley’s Comet – swings into the inner solar system about every 76 years. In early May, we see bits of this comet as the annual Eta Aquariid meteor shower. Then some six months later, in October, Earth in its orbit again intersects the orbital path of Halley’s Comet. Many people nowadays say ‘Hailey’, a legacy of the 1950s rock group Bill Haley and the Comets. Because Halley’s Comet has circled the sun innumerable times over countless millennia, cometary fragments litter its orbit. The diagrams below can help you visualize Earth’s orbit with respect to the path of Halley’s Comet.
Often, astronomers like to give distances of solar system objects in terms of astronomical units (AU), which is the sun-Earth distance. In other words, at its farthest, Halley’s Comet resides about 60 times farther from the sun than it does at its closest. It was last at perihelion in 1986, and will again return to perihelion in 2061. At present, this comet lies outside the orbit of the outermost major planet, Neptune, and not far from its aphelion point. Of course, Halley’s Comet isn’t the only comet that produces a major meteor shower … Three of the comets in the table below are each responsible for two meteor showers.
Until recently a comet was a comet, and an asteroid was an asteroid. One of three things is going on here, or a combination of them. Another possibility is that the asteroid was once part of a comet that at one time expelled material to cause the meteor shower, then the asteroid broke off and the comet was perturbed into a different orbit. Bottom line: The famous Halley’s Comet spawns the Eta Aquariids in early May and the Orionids in October. Read more about Halley’s Comet, and find more about the pronunciation of the name
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