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:
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 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.
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…