Comet McNaught sports amazing tail

Comet McNaught is displaying a spectacle not seen for centuries during its dazzling sunset show in the southern hemisphere. The celestial visitor’s close encounter with the Sun last week released vast quantitites of dust from within its icy head.

Tails from UK by Robin ScagellThe debris, trapped for aeons while it lay in the frozen depths of space, have spread into curtains of light, called synchrones, across a great swathe of the night sky.

The head of the comet – discovered by Scotsman Robert McNaught, from Prestwick, Ayrshire – is now only visible to spectators in the southern hemisphere. But its 25-million mile long, fan-like tail is so extended that observers have been recording with cameras in northern skies, including the UK.

Robin Scagell took the photo shown here on the night of Sunday, January 21, from near Charlbury in Oxfordshire. Despite a bright crescent moon, rays can be seen streaking upwards through Aquarius.

On previous moonfree nights, they have been seen more clearly, such as in this image by Pete Lawrence, from Selsey, West Sussex. Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory in Chile described it as appearing like an aurora rather than a comet.

Sky and Telescope magazine reports that the phenomenon has not been seen so dramatically since French astronomer Jean-Philippe Loys de Cheseaux sketched a comet’s fan-like tail protruding above the horizon in 1744.

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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