January 2007 Archives

Comet hunting


Yesterday in Melbourne the day started just like the ones before: with a completely clouded sky. However, the first hints of blue showed up right before noon, and by 3pm we had a gorgeous day, with open skies from horizon to horizon and not a cloud on sight. Perfect weather to hunt for a comet.

Actually, "hunt" may be too strong a word, as it wasn't really trying to hide itself. I went once more to Port Melbourne just before sunset, found a good spot on the beach and sat down to wait. The sun disappeared on schedule at 20:40, and Venus was (very) visible high towards the west some twenty minutes later. The thin crescent Moon was also very beautiful, with the dark side perfectly visible through binoculars (and barely visible to the naked eye).

I first saw comet McNaught at 21:30, almost directly to the south (I would have seen it earlier, had I not gotten up for a walk because of the cold), on a still bluish sky. The head was very bright (but significantly less than Venus, which was about to set by this time) and the tail extended, well, forever (until it disappeared into the glow of the sky). Through binoculars it was a great sight, very bright; the tail was extending for at least for 20 degrees until it became indistinct.

This was the first day the comet was visible from Melbourne because of the wet weather of the last week, and many people went to the beach looking for it; I saw more people with binoculars and a guy with a digital camera set on a tripod on the footpath. "Regular" beach goers were very curious about all this and about that weird thing in the sky; as soon as I first looked at it with the binoculars, a group stopped to ask whether that thing was "a meteorite or something". When told it was a comet, one of them asked "is it famous?". Well, now it is. Another couple asked me "do you know what's that special thing there in the sky?" and were very excited to learn it was a comet. The local newspaper The Age reported that they got hundreds of phone calls from people asking what it was or reporting a UFO; some even asked if what they were seeing were the remains of the satellite destroyed by China a few days ago...

The guy with the tripod was also attracting lots of attention, mainly because the comet was much brighter in the camera's display screen than to the naked eye; there were even people taking pictures of the display with mobile phones, which worked better than I'd expect. I took pictures of the comet on film, so I still don't know how they turned out; on ISO400 film, the camera selected an exposure of 7 seconds, which seems about right (but, since the comet was not actually visible through the view finder, I'm not that sure I had it pointed at the right spot...). If they come out ok, I'll post them here.

I went home around 22:20, when the air started to become hazy and the comet started to fade quickly; it has probably set just before 11pm. Comet McNaught is visibly becoming fainter as the days progress and it gets away from the sun (or, at least, that's what people who saw it in previous days are reporting); still, it should be very visible again tonight, and possibly even tomorrow, weather permitting (right now there are scattered clouds in Mebourne and the south-western horizon is not visible, but it's still early; the forecast for tomorrow is of "clearing showers").

(P.S.: some photos taken from Port Melbourne by someone who is probably not "the guy with the tripod" mentioned above are on Flickr)

Still the comet

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Comet McNaught over Wellington; photo by chris_20dObservers in the southern hemisphere are reporting unbelievably beautiful apparitions of comet McNaught every night. The tail is very long and broken into several separate strands, and the comet is definitely not losing brightness as quickly as it was expected. Also, it is significantly further away from the Sun than it was earlier in the week, so it can be seen against much darker skies. The picture shown here was taken yesterday in New Zealand with an 8-second exposure (click on the photo to see a larger version).

Meanwhile, I can report that it is still raining in Melbourne. The forecast calls for showers today and tomorrow, with an unbroken cloud cover, and "clearing showers" on Monday. Maybe it'll still be up...

The great comet of 2007

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Comet 2006 P1; photo by Michael KarrerI went out last night to watch the sunset by the shore of Port Phillip Bay (the best place for an unobstructed horizon around here) and to try to see comet 2006 P/1 (McNaught). The picture you see here was not, alas, taken by me, but by a photographer in Austria. There was way too much glare in the sky due to high-altitude haze yesterday, and there were clouds obscuring the horizon as well. It was a long shot, anyway, as the comet was just one degree away from the Sun.

Today would supposedly be a better day for seeing it from here, as it will be several degrees above the horizon at sunset. However, the day is not only cloudy but also seriously smoky, and I don't think anything will be visible at all; even the Sun is barely visible...

Our northern hemisphere colleagues certainly had quite a spectacle in the last few days, with the comet being clearly visible even during the day and being significantly brighter than Venus during the weekend; there are several amazing pictures all over the net, with a nice gallery at Space Weather.

The comet has already started to move away from the Sun and it will lose brightness very quickly; it will probably still be visible to the naked eye for a week or so, and it should be easy to spot from southern hemisphere locations (at least from locations without as much smoke in the air as Melbourne...), although possibly not in the middle of the day without binoculars (and, if you use binoculars, be very, very careful to avoid the Sun; make sure that you are in the shadow of a building and that there is no chance at all of accidentally looking at the Sun). I'll keep an eye on the sky and will try to get pictures, if possible.

For observations over the next few days, from Melbourne, it will be visible before sunrise starting from the 19th towards the south-east; this image shows the position of the comet at 6am, as seen from Melbourne, for the next 30 days. The sun is rising after 6:15am on all those days.

In the evening, it is setting after the Sun starting from last Saturday (the 13th), and will be 10 degrees above the horizon at sunset on Wednesday (17th), a bit to the left of the Sun; that will probably be the best day to see it from here, as it should still be quite bright. The sun sets at 20:43 (summer time) on that day. The weather forecast for Wednesday is talking about a thunderstorm late in the afternoon, though...

It might be interesting to note that this comet was discovered by an Australian astronomer, Robert McNaught, on August 7 last year while working at the Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran, NSW.

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This page is an archive of entries from January 2007 listed from newest to oldest.

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