We have been fortunate in our lifetimes to witness the amazing feat of the Rosetta Mission. On November 12, after ten years and a 6.4 billion mile journey, a washing machine-sized probe called “Philae” landed on a moving comet. This is a first in many ways, but most obviously is the fact that this is the first time humans have soft-landed a probe on a comet.
Comets have been observed by humans since millennia, and their significance or meaning has been debated throughout times. In 1910, Halley’s Comet passed particularly close to the Earth. In fact, for six hours on May 19, Earth’s orbit carried it through the end of the comet’s 24-million-mile-long tail. Yellow journalists of the day used this to spread fears of the end of the world. In all events, this was a very “big deal” for the times. As an aside, in 1909 Mark Twain said "I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it." Twain died on April 21, 1910, one day after Halley's comet appeared.
This postcard, postmarked in England on October 24, 1910, refers to the fact that the comet, in the form of a bird with a long tail, has finally arrived. Notice the look of fear on the dog’s face.
Halley's Comet most recently appeared in 1986, and it is expected to appear again in 2061 (about every 75 years). It's interesting to think about what will be known about comets, and what will be known about the universe, by then!