Halley’s comet—beacon of creation
‘Comet fever’! Tens of millions spent on everything from binoculars to bumper stickers, from celestial comet-maps to comet-shaped junk jewellery. And although I won’t be rushing off to get the latest Halley’s T-shirt, it’s hard not to get excited about the coming reappearance of this regular visitor from the far reaches of the solar system. Especially, since most who see this event will never do so again in their lifetime. It comes round every 76 years or so.
Halley’s Comet as it looked in 1910.
I well remember my grandmother telling how she bicycled home from boarding school in 1910 (the year of the comet’s last visit) so she could be with her parents when the end came. An astronomer had reported that the comet’s tail contained poisonous gases, and it soon became a common belief that millions would be gassed as the Earth passed through it’s tail.
The first recorded appearance of Halley’s comet was probably 240 B.C., and throughout human history it has often been regarded superstitiously as an omen. Perhaps the best known example of this is the 1066 overthrow of the Saxon king Harold of England by William the Conqueror; one saw the comet as a bad omen, the other as a favourable sign. Both proved to be right! The flaming comet is featured on the famous Bayeux tapestry portraying the battle.
Unfortunately, it appears Halley’s will be further away from us than usual and so will probably not be as impressive this time as on many other occasions when its blazing tail stretched spectacularly across the night sky, evoking descriptions such as a ‘gorgeous fish’, or ‘giant crescent sword’ and the like. Those in the Southern Hemisphere will have a better view than Northerners on this occasion, and the Central Australian town of Alice Springs, with its clear skies, is expecting up to 50,000 visitors, just to see the comet.
At the time of writing it has already been sighted as a hazy speck by the naked eye (powerful astronomical telescopes first spotted it about three years earlier), but it will fade again and then reappear from behind the sun to be at its best in March and April 1986.
Halley’s comet began its current journey back toward Earth in 1948 when it was at the outermost part of its orbit more than 5,200 million kilometres from the sun, travelling at around 80,000 kilometres per day. Like a waterskier being ‘whipped’ around a corner, it has been picking up speed ever since, until in March 1986 it will be hurtling through space at around 5 million kilometres per day.
What Is a Comet?
If we knew all the details, we probably wouldn’t have launched millions of dollars of hardware into space in an effort to find out. There is a small armada of space vehicles from many nations ready to observe, measure and photograph various aspects of the comet, so we should be ready for possible surprises in our understanding of what comets are. However, broadly speaking, the famous description of comets as ‘dirty snowballs’ is very likely to be correct. Dust and other mineral debris in a frozen mass of water, ammonia and few other elements forms the nucleus, which is so small (around 5 kms in diameter in the case of Halley’s) that no Earth telescope could hope to see it. This makes it even more exciting to consider that we may get some excellent shots from the European probe Giotto, which plans to have a really ‘close encounter’ (some 300 kms) with the nucleus. The mission may even destroy the craft at the combined speed with which the particles from the comet and the vehicle will collide, even a speck weighing one-tenth of a gram could penetrate several inches into sheet metal.
When the comet comes close enough to the sun (about the distance of Jupiter’s orbit) it gets hot enough for gases to boil off and form a glowing halo called a ‘coma’, which has a visible diameter of up to 400,000 kms! As it gets closer still, the ‘solar wind’ (an outpouring of particles and radiation from the sun) blows gas and dust particles off the coma to form the tail of the comet(*1), which can be tens of millions of kilometres long. We tend to think of the tail as a streak stretching out behind the comet’s path, like the trail of a fireworks skyrocket, but in fact it always tends to point away from the sun, no matter what direction the comet is moving in. It is this long, flowing tail which caused the ancients to call comets ‘hairy’ or ‘bearded’ stars and which make them so striking.
Who was Halley?
Edmund Halley was a 17th century British Astronomer Royal who became interested in the motions of comets. Impressed with the work of Isaac Newton, particularly in regard to gravity and the motions of orbiting bodies, he persuaded him to publish his famous ‘Principia’ and paid for its printing. Halley reasoned that the comet which had been sighted in 1531, 1607 and (by himself) in 1682 was one and the same, and because it obeyed the laws of orbital motion, would continue to come around with a regular period. On this basis, he predicted that it would return again in 1758.
To a world used to the idea of comets as capricious events related to the whims of providence and/or important events on Earth, this was a startling and revolutionary idea, and when it did, indeed, return on schedule, 16 years after Halley’s death, both he and the comet became instantly famous.
There are perhaps a thousand or so observed comets, but compared to most others, Halley’s comes at reasonable intervals and is large enough and close enough to the sun to be seen well with the naked eye.
Order and Creation
Both Newton and Halley saw the orderly, predictable motions of planets and comets, being the outworkings of consistent and universal laws, as entirely to be expected from the hand of the Creator God revealed in the Bible as a God of order, harmony and self-consistency.
Young people are often taught the history of science in a way that makes it seem as if it was the Christian influence on society which retarded scientific knowledge. Thus, we are taught that people in the middle ages believed that fossils in rocks, although they might look like fish or plants, were created by God (or the devil) to test or confuse us. Yet we are not told that this was a non-biblical idea based on the ideas of the ancient Greeks, whose gods were as likely as men to be fickle and to deceive. Steno, a founding father of modern geology, realised what fossils were on the basis of his belief in the God of the Bible. It is seldom, if ever, taught that (as many non-Christian historians of science admit) it was precisely the post-Reformation emphasis on the Creator God of Scripture, who was knowable on the basis of His revealed Word to man, that allowed true science to flourish. After all, what point is there in trying to find out the rules of the Universe if you believe that Zeus and the gang are in charge? After a binge with Bacchus, they may just decide to change the rules overnight! And if you are saturated with eastern mystical thinking, in which the universe is somehow godlike, personal and ‘conscious’, what reason is there to expect to find any fixed laws at all? If the universe is one big ‘thought’, it may change its mind at any time!
Comet Fever And Evolution
Much of the scientific frenzy to sample some of Halley’s comet is more than just normal curiosity and excitement—it is part of a religious commitment. It is hoped that Halley’s will provide clues to the evolutionary origin of the solar system. It is thought that the material it contains has been held in frozen storage since the solar system began to evolve some 4.5 billion years ago.(*2) The comet has been described as an ‘orbiting museum of evolution’. And since evolution is the truly great world religion of our time (it is regarded as holding the key to everything our roots, our explanation of being, our meaning for existence and future destiny or lack thereof), this quest for material from Halley’s, for many of those involved, has some of the elements we would expect to find in a Christian or Jew contemplating the imminent discovery of the lost ark of the Covenent.
Some renowned scientists, including Sir Fred Hoyle, believe that comets probably contain living creatures such as viruses and bacteria. There have even been serious suggestions that influenza epidemics are more likely as comets pass close to Earth, showering us with bugs. A new twist to the meaning of ‘comet fever’, perhaps! Others believe that comets contain some of the very complex molecules of life, such as DNA and enzymes, which were showered onto Earth in times past, where they evolved into living beings.
Even in 1910 fear and superstition gripped many as scientists, astrologers, and others predicted doom with the approach of the comet.
It is sadly interesting that such flights of fancy usually come from intelligent and respected scientists who, having studied the problems involved in the chemical evolution of even a molecule such as DNA, have concluded that it is impossible on the Earth. Instead of abandoning their belief, they have simply shifted the problem to outer space where it is more difficult to check upon.
Creationists have in the past made firm predictions in advance of discovery e.g., that the moon, being young, would have a thin layer of dust [Ed. see Moon-dust argument no longer useful], and that there would be no life forms of any sort on Mars. On a smaller scale, we can safely predict that there will be no life forms in Halley’s comet, and no DNA or enzymes nothing apart from relatively simple ‘organic’ molecules.
Comets and a Young Universe
Some comets come back very frequently they are known as ‘short-period’ comets. Some ‘long-period’ comets are observed travelling in paths which would mean that if they were to complete one full orbit, it would take hundreds of thousands of years. Every time a comet passes close by the sun, the ‘boil-off’ mentioned earlier means it loses some of its mass. Comets have been seen to break up and disappear completely.
The ‘lifetime’ of a short-period comet, i.e. the time it would take to disappear completely, has been estimated many times to be no more than about ten thousand years. In other words, after ten thousand years there should be no more short-period comets, since virtually everybody, creationist or evolutionist, believes that they are an integral part of the solar system and were formed at the same time as the rest of it. For the believer in Scripture, this is more evidence consistent with a recent creation. The evolutionist belief in long ages requires a further step of faith to reconcile the facts a way must be found to ‘re-supply’ the solar system with comets every so often as older ones are destroyed. Thus, it is assumed that there is a vast shell of about 100 billion comets (the ‘Oort cloud’, after its inventor) at the outer edges of the solar system, too far to be seen with any telescope. Every now and then a passing star disturbs the cloud enough to knock a comet into an inner orbit, perhaps assisted by the gravity of Jupiter, and it then becomes an observable comet which begins to disintegrate each time it approaches the sun. This resupply from the cometary ‘deepfreeze’ conveniently solves the problem of why we still have rapidly-decaying comets in a 4.5 billion year old solar system.
It would be going beyond the facts to say that the Oort cloud does NOT exist however, what can be said is that
- It has never been observed, and should be regarded as at best an evolutionist prediction rather than an established fact.
- The calculated motions of comets do not match well with predictions based on the believed existence of Oort’s cloud (see Lyttleton, R.A., ‘The Non-existence of the Oort Cometary Shell’ in Astrophysics and Space Science, v.31, 1974, pp. 385-401).
- It seems to be an ad hoc explanation to get out of a philosophic difficulty.
- All the evidence regarding comets is directly consistent with the assumption that Oort’s cloud does not exist, and that the reason we still have short-period comets is because the universe is too young for them to have all disintegrated yet.
Far from being an ‘orbiting museum of evolution’, the splendour of Halley’s comet is actually caused by its disintegration and decay, reminding us of the fact that the universe is ‘groaning in bondage to decay’, not building up in complexity.
Far from telling us what things were like 4.5 billion years ago, comets in general stand as evidence of a young universe.
So does Halley’s Comet. So view it with joy as it speaks of the majesty of its Creator, who fashioned all the beauty of the heavens, and who established the orderly laws which ensure its predictable return. And contemplate that far more certain even than the return of Halley’s comet is the promised return in far greater glory of the Creator Christ.
(*1) Actually, things are a little more complex than this. E.g., the comet actually has two tails, but this is not intended to be a highly technical discussion.
*The miracles of Scripture are, of course, times when God has chosen to act ‘non-normatively’; these are unique and special events precisely BECAUSE that is not the way things happen normally. They are few in number, never capricious or whimsical, always of great purposiveness and usually full of obvious and deep spiritual significance to students of Scripture through the ages.
(*2) Media comet articles will no doubt bombard us with dogmatic statements about millions of years. Hardly anyone will consider the obvious fact that, while many isotope ratios and other physical quantities have been measured, no-one has ever actually measured the age of anything older than themselves—think about it!