It was an exciting moment for many people, but especially for a young boy.
It seemed such a daring mission and the fact the probe was not expected to survive made it all the more tantalising. Which boy doesn’t relish the idea of a death and glory suicide mission?
And of course this was not just a European probe and Europe’s first deep space mission, the spacecraft was built in the UK and was visiting an object special to British scientific history. But I skip ahead…
Giotto di Bondone, Giotto of Florence, was perhaps the foremost artist and architect of his era. He completed the painting Scrovegni Chapel in 1305, considered one of the masterpieces of western art. A series of 37 frescos depict the life of Christ and as befits someone credited as the first artist of the renaissance, the detail, expression of human emotion and realism is still considered masterful.
One detail that stands out as a particularly renaissance touch is painted above the manger in a fresco entitled the ‘Adoration of the Magi’. Kneeling before the Christ child the the Magi have been led from the east by a star, but not any star. Inspired by his own observation in 1301, Giotto decided that the star of Bethlehem was a hairy star, a comet.
As it would turn out not just any comet, but one that would be named over 400 years later after the astronomer who demonstrated that it wasn’t a passing phenomenon, but a frequent visitor on an elliptical orbit of 76 years- Halley.
The Night of the 14th/13th March 1986.
Humans have witnessed the rise of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment. Outside the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel almost seven centuries of human progress have passed. Steam Engines and man on the moon are as much part of history as those frescos. Thousands of miles above, deep in space, a small probe hurtled towards Comet 1P/Halley.
A probe named Giotto.
It will take the first close pictures of a cometary body and with a package of sensors start to settle the questions of what these objects are.
It was a tense night. European science held it’s breath.
Death and glory.
Water. 80% water. But blacker than coal.
And shaped like a peanut. A 15km long peanut.
The tail formed by just 10% of the surface, three active jets releasing material as it was hit by the solar wind.
4.5 Billion years old and with the same ratio of constituents as the Sun.
Here was one of the most primitive bodies in the Solar System, almost unchanged since the formation of our star.
Methane, Ammonia, hydrocarbons, organics.
It was a giant dirty snowball with many of the ingredients of a star and planetary system. Lots of data, many answers and lots more questions.
Without all the science the series of pictures taken on approach were worth the cost of the mission alone. (Do watch this!)
Then little Giotto was hit. It started to spin, contact lost, regained, lost, regained; the antenna was no longer pointing directly at Earth. Then the camera was lost. Death after glory.
But not quite. Giotto stabilised after half an hour and lived to do it all again 6 years later with Comet Grigg-skjellerup in 1992. Today the little probe from Filton orbits in quiet retirement, switched off by it’s creators after revealing the first secrets of hairy stars.
Join me in part 3 for an exploration of where comets come from.