Chasing comets

The Rosetta spacecraft has just swung by Earth, on its way to a 2014 rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (or Chewy-Gooey, as the project scientists like to call it). The ambitious mission aims to attach a lander to the comet with harpoons. On board the lander is an instrument called Ptolemy, which will analyse samples from Chewy-Gooey to help work out what it’s made of. Here’s a model of Ptolemy on display in our Exploring Space gallery:

Ptolemy model in the Exploring Space gallery

Ptolemy model in the Exploring Space gallery

In our collections you’ll find many objects showing how comets have fascinated us over the centuries. This beautiful illustration from a 16th-century commonplace book shows the comet of 1532, visible for over a hundred days.

The Comet of 1532 (Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

The Comet of 1532 (Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

The Great Comet of 1811 was clearly visible with the naked eye (its brightness has been surpassed only by Comet Hale-Bopp).  In the  early 19th century astronomy was all the rage, and the comet inspired many fads and fashions, including this French fan on display in our Cosmos & Culture exhibition.

French fan depicting the Great Comet of 1811 (Credit: Science Museum / Jaron Chubb)

French fan depicting the Great Comet of 1811 (Credit: Science Museum / Jaron Chubb)

Despite the public’s growing interest in science, the appearance of the spectacular comet still fuelled superstitions. In America it was blamed for a devastating earthquake, while Napoleon claimed it would bring him luck in invading Russia (which goes to show you shouldn’t believe in superstitions).

His compatriots fared better: 1811 brought excellent weather for vineyards and French wine-makers took the marketing opportunity of branding the fine vintage ‘Comet Wine’. Last year, a London auction house sold a bottle of 1811 comet wine for a staggering £37,900 – that’s around £400 a sip. I think in wishing Rosetta on its way I’ll raise a glass of something slightly less expensive…

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