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Edmund Halley

Edmond Halley (1656 - 1742)

The English astronomer and mathematician was the first to calculate the orbit of the comet later named after him. He also played a central role in the publication of Newton's Principia.

While at Oxford, Halley was introduced to John Flamsteed, the astronomer royal. The relationship developed and, influenced by Flamsteed's project to compile a catalogue of northern stars, Halley proposed to do the same for the Southern Hemisphere. By the time he returned home in January 1678, he had recorded the celestial longitudes and latitudes of 341 stars and observed a transit of Mercury across the Sun's disk. Halley's star catalogue, published in 1678, was the first to contain telescopically determined locations of southern stars and that year he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

Along with the inventor and microscopist Robert Hooke, Sir Christopher Wren and Sir Isaac Newton, Halley was trying to develop a mechanical explanation for planetary
motion. Although progress had been made, Hooke and Halley were not able to deduce a theoretical orbit that would match the observed planetary motions. However, Newton was already there: the orbit would be an ellipse, and Newton expanded his studies on celestial mechanics in his famous work, the Principia. The Royal Society charged Halley with the business of producing the book, which was published in 1687.

In 1704 he was appointed Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford University but continued his work in astronomy. In 1705 he published A Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets, in which he described the parabolic orbits of 24 comets that had been observed from 1337 to 1698. He showed that the three historic comets of 1531, 1607, and 1682 were so similar in characteristics that they must have been successive returns of the same object - now known as Halley's Comet - and accurately predicted its return in 1758. Work continued and in 1716 he devised a method for observing transits of Venus across the disk of the sun in order to determine accurately the distance of the Earth from the Sun. In 1720 Halley succeeded Flamsteed as astronomer royal at Greenwich.

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