Brightest comet in 30 years on display now! 2007-01-12 18:33:12

    BEIJING, Jan. 12 (Xinhuanet) -- Grab your binoculars and check the evening sky just after sunset or the morning sky before sunrise because a  new comet, brighter than the Hale-Bopp comet in 1995, will be visible in the Northern Hemisphere for a week beginning Jan. 12.

    Comet McNaught has become the brightest comet in 30 years, according to the International Comet Quarterly at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

    When Australian astronomer Robert McNaught announced Aug. 7 he had discovered a faint comet on a photograph taken at the Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, it was a distant and inconspicuous object. But its orbital motion at once made it clear that this comet, officially catalogued as C/2006 P1, might grow very bright right about now.

    This is the 31st comet to bear McNaught's name and at time of discovery, it was no brighter than magnitude 17 -- far to dim to see with the naked eye.

    Observers have followed its gradual brightening as its distances from sun and Earth decreased. It's currently both a morning and evening object, visible very low near the east-southeast horizon about 30 to 40 minutes before sunrise and very low near the west-southwest horizon about 30 to 40 minutes after sunset.

    Prospective observers should seek the most favorable conditions possible. Even a bright comet can be obliterated by thin horizon clouds, haze, humid air, smoke, twilight glow, city lights, or moonlight. Binoculars are strongly recommended for locating it.

    But since the new year, reports suggest that Comet McNaught is becoming easier to sight even through the bright twilight glow.

    David Moore reported online seeing the comet on New Year's Day evening from Dublin, Ireland.

    "After searching for over half an hour in strong twilight I saw it easily in 20x80 binoculars from an upstairs window," he wrote. "I could see a small fuzzy and surprisingly bright head about as bright as the mag 3.5 star Lambda Aquilae 6 degrees above it. That said, it was not an easy observation given the strong twilight and the comet was only 3.0 degrees above the horizon!"

    Well-known comet observer, John Bortle of Stormville, New York caught sight of the comet just before sunrise with 15 x 80 binoculars on Jan. 2.

    "My eastern view was largely obstructed by trees," Bortle said. "Still it was somewhat amazing to see the comet against such a bright sky and through all those tree branches! From experience in making similar observations, I'd judge that it was not any fainter than 2nd magnitude."

    The lower the magnitude number, the brighter the object. The brightest stars in the sky are categorized as zero or first magnitude. Negative magnitudes are reserved for the most brilliant objects: the brightest star is Sirius (-1.4); the full moon is -12.7; the sun is -26.7. The faintest stars visible under dark skies are around +6.

    Regardless of just how bright Comet McNaught becomes, beginning on Friday, Jan. 12 and continuing through Monday, Jan. 15, it will be passing through the field of view of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory ("SOHO"); a spacecraft that was launched in 1995 to study the Sun.


Editor: Gareth Dodd
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