Bright comet puts on great show

This weekend offers the last opportunity from the UK to view a spectacular teatime comet that is the brightest for over 30 years. Comet McNaught is sporting a two million mile-long tail and is an impressive sight in the southwest at around 4.45 to 5.15pm, after the sun has set.

Skymania image of the cometIt was reaching its closest point to the sun today, about 15.8 million miles from it, less than half the distance of innermost planet Mercury.

After the weekend, it heads out of UK skies and will be visible only from the southern hemisphere. It will be closest to Earth on January 15 when it will lie 76 million miles away.

Comet McNaught is the brightest since 1975 and three times brighter than Hale-Bopp in 1997. It was discovered from Australia by Scotsman Robert McNaught, originally of Prestwick, Ayrshire.

Robin Scagell, of the UK’s Society for Popular Astronomy, said yesterday: “This is a classic textbook comet with a beautiful bright tail. But you’ll have to get your skates on to see it!

“Make sure you don’t have any buildings or tall trees blocking your view because you’ll need a clear south-western horizon to spot it low in the sky. You’ll see it about a hand’s width to the right of brilliant Venus.

“If the sky is clear it should be a fine sight, easy to spot with the unaided eye and even more impressive through binoculars.”

A crystal clear sunset across the UK gave stargazers a dazzling view of the brightest comet on Wednesday night. Robin, who photographed it from near his home at Flackwell Heath, Bucks, said: The comet was a lovely sight, and easily visible.”

Computer programmer Dave Pearson spotted the comet with his son Ben, four, from their home village of Billingborough, Lincs. He said: “I was absolutely gobsmacked. It looked like a proper comet.

“The core was very bright and it had quite a long tail too – a really fantastic sight. My son, who isn’t quite five yet, was very excited to see his first comet.”

Official measurements confirmed the comet to be the brightest since Comet West hung in the morning sky in 1975. The comet’s tail is about two million miles long. But the body of the comet itself is a chunk of ice from the outer solar system, probably about the size of the Isle of Wight.

The accompanying image of the comet was taken by me from Richmond, South West London, in hazy skies on January 11. Many better ones can be found at Spaceweather.com.

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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