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Comet McNaught Puts on Show for Australia
Brightest comet in decades frustrates observers
Richard C.S. Kinne (kinnerc)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2007-01-12 17:15 (KST)   
Comet McNaught, known in astronomical circles as C/2006 P1, has been hailed as one of the brightest comets in over 40 years. Unfortunately, its orbit means that many people in the northern hemisphere will not get a chance to see it themselves.

Real estate sellers have a joke that a property's value is all about "location, location, location!" They mean that even if a property is well maintained and beautiful, it won't be worth much if it's in a bad section of town. The same can be said, in this case, of comets.

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This analogy of location can be made with Comet McNaught. Although it is a new comet to the inner solar system, and has become very bright by coming as near to the Sun as it has, its orbit, or path through the solar system, has made it seem in our skies so that it is constantly very near the horizon when the Sun sets or rises.

Despite its brightness -- almost as bright as the planet Venus in the sky -- this location has made it a very difficult object to see because by the time the sky has gotten dark enough to appreciate the comet, it has already followed the Sun below the horizon!

Some dedicated souls have taken advantage of the great brightness of this comet to hunt for it in broad daylight! Many who have tried this have been successful in seeing the comet in the middle of the day. Comet hunting during the day, however, is best left to experienced people. Comets are only bright as they come near the Sun and without experience, the chance of permanently blinding yourself by mistakingly finding the Sun with your binoculars or telescope, instead of a comet, is too great to chance!

But while Comet McNaught's location may be frustrating normal Earth-based observers, that same location will allow an Internet-accessible space camera to have the best view possible for a few days starting on Jan. 12.

The main mission of Solar and Heliospheric Observatory -- SOHO -- is to observe and record the Sun. Scientists, researchers and students use the satellite to record and track sunspots, solar wind, and other weather on the Sun. The SOHO cameras have also picked up hundreds of "sungrazing comets:" comets that come so close to the Sun that they are never seen again. Usually these comets are so small and so close to the Sun that the only time they're seen is in a one-time fleeting glimpse in a SOHO photograph.

Comet McNaught is different in that it is not a classic sungrazing comet. However it will come close to the Sun -- close enough that it will cross in front of the SOHO cameras and will be visible to everyone who comes to the SOHO Web site. Scientists expect SOHO to see Comet McNaught between Jan. 12 and Jan. 15.


Computer Simulation of Comet McNaught's Orbit Through Solar System
©2007 Richard C.S Kinne

After Jan. 15 the comet will again make a grand appearance in evening skies, but only for those people a good deal south of the equator. It should fade from naked-eye view by the beginning of February. Perhaps as a strange thanks to the land where it was discovered, Comet McNaught's best views will be had in Australia as it heads back out to deep space.
Read more about the discovery of Comet McNaught at the Siding Springs Survey Web site.

©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Richard C.S. Kinne

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