Halley’s Comet adventure 1986

Halley April11

Halley imaged with a 5.5″ Schmidt Camera on Tri-X film, from a location near Ayers Rock, Australia.


Now more than 30 years ago, I and other staff of the Armagh Planetarium journeyed to Kenya and Australia to photograph Halley’s comet, in March and April 1986. It was a magical time, and a memorable trip, following on the heels of the amazing first flyby of a cometary nucleus by ESA’s Giotto spacecraft on March 13, 1986, an event we carried live in the planetarium dome in Armagh, and setting the scene for many future live events I did in my future planetarium work.



In addition to photography for the planetarium, from which we produced a slide set for sale, and a planetarium show, I made personal observations in my own log book so that it can become a treasure for future reference. Now 30 years later, as I write  this, such a record is wonderful to reflect upon.

April 8 1986

Halley’s Comet from Australia taken April 8 1986 by Terence Murtagh – foreground was illuminated by flashlight. I’m standing with the C8, friend Anthony Thomas is seated left on a celestron box, and our tech has the easy chair!

Halley group Apr 8



April 10 1986

On this night we were located near Mt. Connor, some miles from Ayers Rock. I was responsible for imaging on chips of film placed inside a 5.5″ Schmidt Camera guided by a classic C8.

With Mt Connor in the background, here's our sturdy C8 with 5.5" Schmidt camera riding piggyback. Guiding was done through the C8.

With Mt Connor in the background, here’s our sturdy C8 with 5.5″ Schmidt camera riding piggyback. Guiding was done through the C8.

Each chip was placed inside a developing tank, and were processed each morning. I carried powered developed and fixer chemicals and mixed them each morning using water supplied from our vehicle, while the guys cooked breakfast.

April10_photoApril10 drawing



April 11 1986

Halley’s comet was closest to Earth 30 years ago April 11. This was a special night – I photographed the comet on my own near Ayers Rock for hours.

Halley_color-April11I used color film and a second film cassette for a take-up spool. Such care had to be performed in the dark in a changing bag to move the film forwards for another image without scratching the emulsion. While the comet had faded due to a disconnection event earlier, the gas tail was re-growing and tonight was a spectacular scene in binoculars (see sketch) and details came out in the images.


April11 drawingThis was the start of a dramatic week of changes in Halley’s appearance.

On return to the Sheraton Hotel at Yulara resort in the early hours of the morning, I found a bunch of hotel workers sitting listening to Dire Straight music. It was a memorable experience to be walking quietly across the hotel grounds and Halley in the sky, and Dire Straights music rising from the outback. I sat with the hotel crew a while, asked them what they were doing. Turned out Dire Straights were in Darwin and were going to do a special free concert at Ayers Rock on the night of its closest position to Earth – but had to cancel at the last minute. The staff held a wake in their honor, and they were most surprised when I pointed out Halley’s Comet to them.

April 12 1986

Continuing the Halley 30 year recollection, April 12 1986 was the last night in the Aussie outback, and we camped near Mt Ebenezer to shoot the comet. My notes mention a few dingos howling at night! Halley had faded again.

April 12 image of Halley on Tri-X using 5.5" Schmidt Camera

April 12 image of Halley on Tri-X using 5.5″ Schmidt Camera


April 12 image of Halley on Fuji 1600 film using 5.5″ Schmidt Camera

I shot color and black and white film as was now usual.






Halley sketch April 12 The comet was a lovely sight in binoculars – the subtleties of the tail were obvious in the clear Australian night sky. I continued my series of drawings of the comet, which are inserted in my notebook.



Double exposure of the same film frame accidentally reinserted into the telescope without advancing.

Double exposure of the same film frame accidentally reinserted into the telescope without advancing.

Clearly I got a bit too tired, because one image had me perplexed for a while – two images of Halley – I had removed the film container, rotated it 180 degrees and forgot to wind the film manually through the holder for the next shot. A unique view of two Halley’s!







The next morning, April 13, we flew from Alice Springs to Sydney, got a new vehicle, and ventured towards Coonabarabran and the Anglo Australian Observatory. Look out for April 14 and 15th posts. The comet got really interesting! And I got my best shot yet of Halley.

April 14, 1986

Flew to Sydney April 13 and today began a drive to Coonabarabran, home of the Anglo-Australian Observatory. We drove through the spectacular Blue Mountains, a total contrast to the red desert of the Outback that we left yesterday. We made a camp near Wyaldra Creek, 60 km south of Dunedoo, and near the town of Gulgong.April 14 observing site 2

Silence of the night disturbed

After setting up the C8 and Schmidt camera in a small clearing in the trees, I began my photography. It was totally silent.

April 14 observing siteThis was a great night because Halley was within a degree of Centaurus A (little did I know a supernova would erupt in this galaxy a few weeks later, a Type Ia) , and a few degrees from Omega Centauri.

While imaging, I heard something slowly creeping along the ground, rustling the undergrowth intermittently. Trying to focus on guiding – the rustling got closer. Was kind of animal was it? Then I heard fast scurrying, I jumped and ran for the vehicle door, waking my colleagues as I piled in breathless. Turns out my foot caught in the wire of the illuminated reticle, breaking the bulb in the process. Luckily I had a spare! The trials of comet watching!

I selected the color film for the Schmidt Camera first, followed by a couple of Tri-X film chips. My notebook recalls interruption of images due to lights on a nearby highway.


Halley, Centaurus-A, and Omega Centauri.

Halley, Centaurus-A, and Omega Centauri.

I carefully positioned the Schmidt Camera to enable Cen A, Omega Centuari, and the comet to be in the same field of view. Recall this is shooting blind, and I’d have to wait until morning to process the negatives to see if I’d done it correctly. I was lucky. One of these shots was a great one, and ended up on the cover of the Journal of the British Astronomical Association later in the year.





April 14 Halley in color





I did two drawings, one with binoculars and also one through the C8, since tail structure was quite evident. I noted the angle between the gas and dust tail had reduced, and the gas tail appeared brighter than April 12.

Halley C8 April 14The dust tail exhibited a “bright, linear edge”, according to my hand-written notes. I noted the coma was certainly brighter than Omega Cen (+3.7). Two jets in the gas tail were seen through the C8



April 15 1986

Arrived in Coonabarabran, and the town was ready for Halley, with banners celebrating the comet in the local park.

At night we set up camp in the Warrumbungle National Park, in sight of and below the Anglo-Australian telescope.Halley’s fan-shaped tail was closing further, due to Earth’s changing perspective. My notes suggested the brightening of Halley I was seeing was largely due to this changing perspective as we were getting a progressively edgewise view of the tail.

This was a magical night, observing within view of the AAT and the famous UK Schmidt telescope, which was imaging the comet at the same time.

Halley April 15Imagine taking a photo of Halley and seeing a brilliant meteor shoot by during the exposure. This was the result. My photo with a Schmidt Camera shows a meteor in Earth’s atmosphere, debris from a comet, Halley 4 light minutes away, stars a few hundred to thousands of light years away, and Centaurus A 13 million light years distant.




I took a picture of our little setup from Armagh with the AAT in the background. I christened our scope The Armagh Astronomical Telescope, AAT for short. The park, I recall, had many wallabies that greeted us the following morning.

April 16 1986


April 24 1986 – Total Lunar Eclipse and Halley’s Comet

I traveled to New Zealand with friend Anthony Thomas – most days were cloudy until the night of the total eclipse of the Moon, April 24. From the southern island town of Wanaka, we saw the full moon light up the sky and no sign of Halley, but clearly visible in binoculars. Gradually, over the hour leading up to totality, the sky grew darker. By 50% partial eclipse the comet was easy with the naked eye, and in binoculars my notes record that even the tail was slowly becoming visible and brighter than expected. The moon was 40 degrees away.

Now the sky was lovely, faint stars now filled the sky now that the Moon was a bright orange in totality. The view of the comet “was a lovely sight”. I noted the tail was “not as bright by any means, but the amazing thing was length” that was visible. It stretched 9 degrees in binoculars, and 6 degrees by eye!

IMG_1455 The view through binoculars was stunning, see the sketch. The photo doesn’t do justice to the “totally eclipsed moon, and the comet with the long faint milky white tail – an unforgettable sight!”.





I saw the comet two more times, once from New Zealand, and a final time May 8 from my then home in Northern Ireland.

Final Thoughts

I noted in my logbook that “after years of anticipation, Halley has come and gone, leaving in its wake the usual mixture of confusion amongst the public, and euphoria of the scientists over the largest international effort ever put towards one object.”

IMG_1459April 1996 – 10 years on

I wrote an epilogue in April 1996, ten years later. Little did we know in 1986 that in March and April 1996 Comet Hyakutake would come within 10 million miles of Earth, and showed off a tail 40-60 degrees long, and on April 4 1996 another total lunar eclipse would render Hyakutake visible, a repeat performance of the New Zealand experience.

A year later, Comet Hale-Bopp outdid both Halley and Hyakutake in a spectacular display.