To ancient civilisations these fiery streaks of light in the sky were nothing less than Gods – bringers of life or harbingers of doom. 2000 years on, it seems that myths and scientific discoveries about meteors and comets are proving to be surprisingly similar… A new breed of space missions are visiting comets - travelling millions of miles to touch down on these tiny balls of rock flying through space. The Taurid meteor shower that rains down on the Earth every autumn is the visible remains of a comet that once broke up in Earth’s orbit. But what of the comet itself - where did it come from and what happened to it? This programme explores both the current deep-space missions that are revealing the origin and nature of comets, and historical myths that surrounded these beautiful celestial phenomena.
The surprising thing is that the myths and the science are often remarkably similar and reflect the important role that comets have had in the beginning of our solar system, the origins of life on Earth, and it’s potential destruction. Among the stories investigated are:
Harbingers of doom
Genghis Khan and William the Conqueror both saw comets as signs from the Gods that great events were about to happen. Both in fact saw Halley’s Comet.
Comets discover gravity
It was while studying the comet that would later be known as Halley’s Comet that Newton discovered gravity. It had nothing to do with apples at all. Suddenly comets became explicable, rational objects – something to be celebrated, not feared.
Armageddon is a meteor strike?
2,500 years ago three seperate Middle Eastern civilisations suddenly disappeared, leaving behind stories of massive fireballs and god’s vengeance. Evidence from the desert sands suggests that the cause was a comet, and that the Biblical stories of destruction are the folk memories of the devastation it caused. Could it happen again? And could we do anything about it if it did?
Could life have started in a comet’s tail?
It has long been suggested that life may have arrived on Earth from space – ‘Panspermia’. The latest missions to the comets reveal that they are made of ice, nitrogen and the complex organic materials that make up the ingredients of life. Experiments with high velocity guns and space rocks have shown that even living bacteria could survive the force of comet impact.
The ultimate creation story
Incredibly ancient, comets come from the dark reaches beyond Pluto, where they have hovered unchanged for four billion years. As remnants of the very early Solar System, they can tell us what happened when the Sun was born and how that colossal release of energy led to the formation of the planets.