Comets have been one of the disappointments of my life. We keep hearing of comets that are going to be huge – HUGE. This is when they’re discovered or not long afterwards when the astronomers do their calculations on how big they could be. I don’t know if the astronomers actually put out accurate figures with wide confidence intervals and the media picks up the most up-beat predictions. But one after another have been a disappointment. Comets that were to be the biggest in a century – stretching across half the sky turn out to be invisible to the naked eye.
Even Halley which regularly visits us enough so that most people who live a reasonable time get to see it just once – and only the privileged few get to see it twice – turned up last time in (from memory) 1986 and was surprisingly small. It was quite beautiful, and I kept my eye on it throughout its visit. Once you knew where it was you could see it from anywhere on a clear night. (Even though it took me and some friends at least five minutes to see it in the dead of night on a country road we’d take to to look at it. But it was much smaller than usual – as a result of Earth being further away from it than usual. An octogenarian relative told me at the time he had seen it from his porch when he was 8 and it was a huge streak across a third of the sky.
Anyway, I was interested in Comet McNaught (discovered by an Australian astronomer Robert McNaught a while back) and Alexander and I went up to the local lookout to see if we could see it on the night it was supposed to be brightest. I was amazed at how little press coverage there was of it given that it was to be the brightest comet in the sky for 40 years – I’d heard it all before. Anyway, There was too much smoke for me to see it with the naked eye, but some people in the same park said they could see it with binoculars. They offered me a look through, but I couldn’t see anything. Typical. The next there was nothing much, but there was some cloud haze. And the night after that the comet was supposed to be fading – so I gave it all away.
Then that night I was driving home along on a country road nearing ten at night and there was a large vertical streak in the sky on my left side. I stopped the car expecting that it was some false alarm – an odd shaped cloud or something – and there it was. A glorious streak of light in the sky about two hand spans – just like a celestial Captain Cook fountain on Lake Burley Griffin seen from across the lake. I didn’t know that comets can have curved tails – though I know they often fork. Anyway, it’s a marvel – try very hard not to miss it. It’s best when the sun is fully down. A couple of pictures of it in its full glory is over the fold. I am completely amazed people are not making more of it.
It’s slightly to the south of where the sun sets, and best seen an hour or a bit more after sundown.
Postcript – here’s a bit of YouTube on Comet McNaught.