Comet McNaught: The Twilight Wonder

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Comet McNaught, photographed from the
Empire State Building on January 11, 2007
when the comet was within 10 degrees of the Sun
Photographs by Tony Hoffman, taken with a Canon
Digital Rebel XTi and a 100mm lens.

Comet McNaught (C/2006 P1), discovered by Rob McNaugbt of the Siding Spring Observatory in Australia, became the brightest comet in several decades as it approached the Sun in mid-January 2007, and even became visible in full daylight with the naked eye, for those lucky enough to have very clear skies. I was clouded out for daylight viewing, but I observed the comet on four successive nights (January 8-11), each time in bright twilight and under less than optimal conditions. The first night, I saw in 50mm binoculars from a hospital window where my brother was recovering from surgery, as the orange-white head of the comet shone through thin cloud just before it disappeared into a thicker cloud bank. Then next night, I saw it from an elevated train platform in my Queens, New York neighborhood. Once again it was through thin cloud, but this time I had 20x80 binoculars, through which Comet McNaught looked gorgeous, with a bright, condensed head and a beautiful, parabolic-shaped coma and tail. The following evening I sighted it from the windows of the office where I work, through a pair of Celestron 12x60 binoculars I had picked up earlier in the day. Unfortunately, the comet soon disappeared behind a building, and allthough I took a number of photos with a Canon SD630 digital camera, the comet was invisible against the bright blue sky.

The next night, January 11, I brought a much better camera (my Canon Digital Rebel XTi digital SLR) with a 100mm lens, along with the 12x60 binoculars, with me to work. The flawless blue sky became partially obscured by cirrus by noon, but there was enough blue sky that I decided to try for the comet, knowing also that it would be my last chance to observe or photograph it, as Comet McNaught was getting very close to the Sun and henceforth would only be visible from the Southern Hemisphere. So I went to the top of the Empire State Building, which is about 7 blocks from my office, just before sunset. The Sun was a washed-out, amorphous red blob in a thick bank of cirrus clouds when I got there, so I didn’t expect to see much of the comet. Soon, though, I managed to pick out Venus, and eventually I saw the comet in binoculars, bright head and beautiful, parabolic-looking coma and tail. It was in rather thick cirrus, though, so it was only a pale shadow of what other people have been reporting. I started shooting with my DSLR in the comet’s vicinity, though I couldn’t make it out in the viewfinder. As I stood there with my camera and binoculars, a fellow came up to me and asked me if I was looking for a comet. I lent him the binoculars, and he soon sighted it. He told me he lives in New York City and is interested in astronomy, but is thwarted by the realities of living in the city. I told him about the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York, and he seemed interested; I gave him our URL. The sky got pinker, the comet’s altitude got lower, I kept taking photos until the comet finally disappeared into a thick haze that hung within a couple of degrees of the horizon. I’m a bit surprised that the photos turned out as well as they did (though they did require some tweaking of brightness and contrast), considering the clouds and the fact that the comet was within 10 degrees of the Sun.

E-mail to tonyhoffman [at] earthlink [dot] net