McNaught takes time out for comet

The astronomer who discovered the most spectacular comet in over 40 years took a holiday to get away from all the fuss. Robert McNaught, whose brilliant find is now dominating sunset skies Down Under, escaped the limelight to observe it himself in peace.

Comet McNaught is so prominent that emergency services in New Zealand received calls from people worried that a plane was falling out of the sky. Crowds have been gathering at lookout points across the southern hemisphere to catch a view of the brightest comet since Ikeya-Seki in 1965.

Modest McNaught, who grew up in Prestwick, Ayrshire, said he tries to ignore the fact that the comet has made his name famous around the world. He told Skymania News: “I try to ignore it. I’m a comet fan and willing to travel to the best locations to see them at their best. Regardless of the name, I’d have been excited.

“The media attention can be a problem in taking up time that would otherwise be used to plan – and enjoy – my own observations. For this reason I took a few days’ vacation around the time the comet was at its brightest to simply have fun observing it!”

McNaught, 50, said the comet became so bright that he managed to spot it from a plane at 40,000ft in daylight. Later he photographed the comet’s broad, curtain-like tail against a dark sky when the brilliant head had already set below the horizon.

McNaught, who works at Siding Spring Observatory, New South Wales, monitoring the sky for hazardous asteroids, recalls the moment last August when he discovered the comet. It then appeared as a faint smudge on a photographic image.

He said: “At discovery it was a typical faint object, but within a couple of days it was clear that it would get very close to the Sun. I started to get excited then.”

The photo of the comet was taken by David Litchfield, from Perth, Western Australia, on January 20.

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