Back in history: Dr Sagan takes a break

Astronomer Carl Sagan pictured in 1981. Picture: SPACE.COM

World-famous American astronomer Doctor Carl Sagan was onboard the cruise ship Royal Viking Star when it called in at Suva in 1986.

The Fiji Times reported that on April 4 that year, Dr Sagan, a professor at a university in New York, was in Fiji to “get away’ from all the lectures and studies and enjoy “a break”.

He was invited to join the cruise with his family but he also gave lectures aboard on Halley’s Comet and astronomy in general.

Halley’s Comet is arguably the most famous comet in history.

As a “periodic” comet, it returns to Earth’s vicinity about every 75 years, which made it possible for a person to see it twice in their lifetime He described the opportunity as a holiday aboard “the opulent cruise ship”.

His third lecture in the series was during the last night of the ship’s stay in Fiji.

According to Dr Sagan, comet Halley was putting its “worst appearance” in many centuries, as this time it was much further from the Earth.

“It is usually much more spectacular, a much more bright comet,” he said.

It had been the closest to the Earth sometime between November and March but Dr Sagan could not quite remember when.

He said the comet should be at its best viewing in the next few days.

“As soon as the moon wanes and the rain stops.”

When the comet came very close to the moon, it would be swamped by the brightness of the moon.

This was the case in the last week or so when there was a full moon.

That month Halley’s Comet was expected to appear high in the heavens of the north-eastern sky between 3.30 and 5.30 in the morning. It was expected to disappear by early May.

Dr Sagan rejected reports that towards the end of the month the comet could be viewed in the late evenings.

“No, it can only be viewed early mornings until it disappears.”

But he said the comet comes up “precisely” to scientific expectations. It had been a disappointment because of the “greatly exaggerated” accounts given by the press back in New York.

Scientifically, the appearance of the comet had been very significant.

“A flotilla of five spacecraft from 20 nations last month intercepted it.”

Dr Sagan, a professor of astronomy and space science at the Cornell University, said for the first time human beings had seen the nucleus of the comet-sitting at the centre of a vast cloud of gas and dust.

He was the director of planetary studies at the university and was also a recipient of numerous medals and awards.

When he was not studying or lecturing on stars, he wrote. One of his preoccupations from stars and planets was the consequences of a nuclear holocaust.

He was the author of the book Cosmos which sparked a television series and drew worldwide acclaim. He had so far written 20 book on this topic.

More Stories