Stargazers have been surprised by a bright new comet that has appeared low in the twilight sky. The cosmic wanderer, discovered by a Scottish astronomer, has flared in brightness as it makes a grazing flypast of the Sun.
It is already brighter than virtually all stars. Some experts estimate Comet McNaught could become even brighter than the brilliant planet Venus and produce a spectacular long tail by the end of next week.
The comet was first spotted deep in space by Robert McNaught, originally from Prestwick, Ayrshire, on a photograph he took at Australia’s Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales. Its extreme orbit is bringing it to within half the distance from the Sun of its closest planet, Mercury. It will pass just 15.8 million miles from the Sun on January 12, called perihelion, and then rapidly heads southwards becoming visible only in the southern hemisphere as it fades.
At the moment, the comet is visible very low down in bright twilight skies before sunrise and after the Sun sets. Photographs show it has already grown a tail. Despite its brightness, the fact that the comet is close to the sun means it is not easy to see. Bright twilight, low cloud and haze plus buildings on the horizon all create difficulties.
Robin Scagell, of the UK’s Society for Popular Astronomy, said: “If you get clear skies towards the south-west after sunset or towards the south-east before dawn, it is well worth having a look. Bright comets often take us by surprise and can be very unpredictable. It will be fascinating to see how Comet McNaught develops.”
One observer who found it on New Year’s Day evening was David Moore, from Dublin, Ireland. He picked it out in strong twilight with binoculars. A number of photos of the comet appear at SpaceWeather.com.
Robert McNaught, who now lives in Australia, has previously discovered 30 other comets. Our chart with this article shows the comet’s position in the south-western evening sky on January 9 and January 12 at around 16.45pm local time from the latitude of London.