Incredible Comet McNaught photo

By Phil Plait | January 18, 2007 10:05 am

OK, one more post before The Amaz!ng Meeting. I just had to post this image of Comet McNaught:

Wow. Click it to get the higher-res version. Look at the tail! It appears to have broken up into ribbons or sheets. It’s truly spectacular. Hmmm… I’d better start taking notes for the Best Astronomy Images of 2007!


Comments (43)

  1. I just caught that shot moments ago on the Planetary Society blog… what a stunner, eh? Aside from being utterly gorgeous, it’s a painful reminder that I never got a chance to observe McNaught with my own eyes.

    Who can I talk to about a raincheck?

  2. How far away is that comet again?

  3. Just under 80 million miles last I looked.

  4. Grand Lunar

    Is it still visible to the unaided eye?
    I think I saw it once last week, but no tail was visible. I blame the light pollution.

  5. kingnor

    man i never saw it. how/where was that pic taken?

  6. Ed Davies

    how/where? According to the main page, by Kevin Crause, in Mossel Bay, South Africa with a Nikon D2X and 120mm lens. f/5.3, 9sec, ISO 200.

  7. Mark Martin

    (*sigh*) Indiana. Clouds.

  8. RawheaD

    Here’s an even better shot, probably taken the same day (the tail looks similar).

    Man, I’ve never been so envious of those down yonder than the past few days!

  9. MarshallDog

    That picture is stunning. I wish I could have seen it, but it was cloudy up here pretty much all weekend.

  10. GreenNeck2

    Missed it – we were clouded up in northern Ontario.

    Looks like a spectacular comet, just like West in 1976, which was IMHO the best comet I’ve seen.

  11. TheProbe

    It seems to me that every time something like this happens, it rains or is cloudy on Long Island, NY. If I did not know better, I would begin to think that there is a causal connection.

    Anyone have an idea if it will still be visible down under after 2/17/07? We are flying to Sydney then, and maybe a good view from the plane?

  12. That picture gives a whole new meaning to the word METEOROLOGY:

    The science of the atmosphere – meteorology embraces both weather and climate and is concerned with all aspects of the Earth’s atmosphere (and those of the planets) and with the interaction between the atmosphere and the surface. The term was first used by Aristotle.

    That comet looks like it is a part of the earths atmosphere for sure. The word meteor comes to mind. Is there a term called COMETOLOGY?

  13. Glen

    Why does the tail appear curved? Shouldn’t it be trailing in a straight line away from the solar wind?

    Will it be visible on the outbound trip?

  14. GreenNeck2

    If I recall that right, comets often have 2 tails, a ‘dust’ tail made of exactly that, dust particles, and a ‘gas’ tail, which results from ionisation from the Sun’s UV. The dust is heavier, and thus less affected by the solar wind, so it moves slower; it forms the curved tail, as a result of the comet’s elliptical orbit. The gas tail, on the other hand, will be straight (and usually harder to see).

    The tail should remain visible for the outbound trip provided viewing angles allow it. But the farther the comet gets from the sun the lesser the tail.

    There are several sites explaining that. Here’s one:

  15. gopher65

    I wish I had managed to get a glimpse of this:(.

  16. Kyle

    Couldn’t we see it here in the northern hemisphere at sunrise?

  17. RawheaD


    The comet is near the sun but farther “south” than the sun (i.e., closer to the celestial south pole than the sun). For us northerners, that means that the comet will rise after the sun and set before the sun (similar to how the sun during winter will rise later and set earlier than the sun would during summer).

    Also because it’s low in the horizon, I’m guessing it must be hard to spot the comet in daylight, like it was possible a few days back… or, I wonder if that has more to do with the comet putting distance between it and the sun, hence diminishing in absolute magnitude…

  18. Kyle

    Okay thanks RawheaD. That saves me the trouble of getting up early in the morning I guess.

  19. RawheaD

    Just to add: because of the above, the best place to be is the farthest south you can be. For example, if you were in Punta Arenas, Chile, almost at the tip of South America, you can watch the comet all night long because it will never set. Of course around this time of the year “all night long” in those parts are pretty short (like 8 hours).

  20. To Glen: You are right, the tail trail in a straight line away from the sun, but that is not the direction that the comet moves.
    Relative to the photographer that took the picture, the comet moves to the left while the tail is streaming straight away from the sun and that makes it curved.

  21. Scott

    Took some pictures last night (Friday night) of the comet. They’re a bit noisy but the tail looks pretty cool. Hope you enjoy.

  22. Hi all. The weather is excellent here in Bariloche, Argentina, and we have been watching the comet since Saturday, when it first became visible here. It’s as incredible visually as the pictures show. I took some nice photos myself, you are invited to see them in the astro section of my webpage:

    Each night, even if it’s farther from the Sun and the Earth, it’s higher in the sky and visible against a darker sky, so the tail is actually more and more visible.



  23. icemith

    Kyle, it may be profitable for you to be patient. (You can sleep late). If you are fortunate to have clear skies on the horizon, and have a good idea just where to look, it MAY be possible to see it for a few days more, even in daylight. In the 30 to 60 minutes after Sunrise you should look for Venus. (Check that out in the usual places – Skymaps, daily newspaper weather pages etc.). That time, and successively later each day after, as the comet will be further away from the Sun, and thus lower in the Northern sky, being beneath the Solar System’s ecliptic plane, will be the approximate time the comet nucleus ‘rises’ too. Of course, the Sun having risen earlier, will also indicate just where the Tail will be – always streaming away from the direction of the Sun. Think of it as a white shadow.

    The essential clue at the moment, and it will distort in the coming weeks, is to find Venus, as it rises, and note the distance to the Sun, a handspan or so, and create an equilateral triangle, for Northerners, with Venus on the left. (I think that is correct). That third point will be near the comet’s location, at the horizon. If you are a dedicated late riser yourself, then the same trick MAY work, but you will be (hopefully) looking in bright blue sky. The Tail is at least half a handspan at arm’s length, but lost in that blue. Your problem is to locate Venus first!

    That’s the theory at least. Now that I know exactly (?) where to look, from viewing it this past evening (in Australia, having set well after the Sun), I shall put it to the test tomorrow – my Saturday morning. For me, Venus will be on the right. (I think).


  24. Tom

    Looks like those southern hemisphere guys are getting the better half of the show! I thought we had it good up here, but down under – Wow!!!


  25. Take a look at this one, after it got dark, showing just the end of the dust tail:

    The rest of the page:

  26. Depressed

    I missed it. I didn’t know it was going to be this bright but I still kept on looking for it. I missed it. Seeing these photos is making me suicidal… I missed it. I miss everything. Shuttle launches, comets, creepy moon nights, a few years back when Mars was close to Earth (That was like 2003, right? Or was it just a hoax?) Hope it looked great to y’all.

  27. .

    looks pretty. Where was that picture taken?

  28. Ozprof

    I missed it because of all the cloud. :-(

    But if you want to see some really good images of it, you should check out Rob McNaught’s page. On his piccies, it looks even better than West in 1975.

    Hummmm, I think I am dating myself there! :-(

  29. I’m so annoyed. We’ve had nothing but clouds here in Texas for the last two weeks. I haven’t been able to see anything. AAARRGGGHH!!!

  30. Tom Epps

    Okay, Severe Frustration is kicking in. I’m deployed (Navy) on a ship working off the coast of Somalia, at Latitude 0 or thereabouts. (Beautiful, clear conditions. Every night I’m observing the LMC with binoculars, and pegging more southern DS objects.) By my estimation I ought to have the best view in the house of this comet.

    So WHY can’t I see it?

    Tom Epps
    OS1(SW) USN
    USNS Polar Bear

  31. JustAl

    Hey Depressed, don’t sweat it. Celestial events can be a real pain in the posterior to see. We got a brief spat of clear weather right at the end of the northern hemisphere viewing time here, I was out about nine times one day trying to see the comet during daylight (when plenty of others were actually getting photos at those times) and never could get a glimpse of it.

    Mars in 2003 wasn’t any great shakes – I have photos from then, taken through a long lens, and it’s a brighter speck than before. Really, nothing else to see.

    I’ve been out during several meteor showers predicted to be “very active” and didn’t see jack. I just got done sorting through over a dozen slides, long exposures, from the recent Perseids, and not a streak on any of them from a meteor. Actually watched one appear the other night during a long digital exposure, guaranteed to be in the frame, but too faint to capture.

    The Leonids in 2002 was absolutely spectacular, and the film I tried then captured nothing at all. Great show, but I recall seeing a lot of vivid trails while the camera was pointing in the opposite direction (directly at the reputed source location, of course).

    And this past Sunday morning I had an opportunity when the Hubble was supposed to pass directly in front of the crescent moon. Virtually guaranteed to put a “star” in the horns of the crescent, and I stood a chance of silhouetting the Hubble (which was much dimmer) against the sunlit portion of the moon. Modified a telescope to take my camera, had a second camera on a long lens with 2x converter, beautifully clear conditions, proper film loaded, exposure times all nailed down… AND I STUPIDLY MIS-SET MY @#$%^& ALARM CLOCK! Woke up on my own 15 minutes after the pass! You wanna talk emotional?

    Astronomical observations are tricky and depend on a lot of luck (and setting your deity-condemned alarm clock properly). Be patient. There’s lots more to come.

    Also check out for more viewing opportunities. Their maps can be difficult to follow sometimes, but they routinely have the goods.

    To the others getting great photos – thanks for sharing! Looks like quite a show! Now don’t get smug… ūüėČ

  32. Hank Roberts

    Please keep posting pictures. I was able to watch the comet set the last few days in the San Francisco area — right over the Golden Gate, one of those two days — with binoculars. And routed the neighboring teenagers away from their videos to see it too.

    They all asked “is it going to hit us?” High school seniors. Aieeeeeeeeee.

    Anyone got links to photos from the ISS? Surely they’re watching.

    And with the speed the ISS is moving, a couple of photos taken one right after the other should produce a very nice ‘stereo pair’ — so where are they?

  33. BB

    Arg, my comment didn’t go through the first time.
    Anyway, I am definitely going to TAM6 next year. I’d book my tickets and reservations right now if I could.

  34. Clive Edwards

    I got an email alert from about Comet McNaught on 10 Jan around noon….

    I live in the country about halfway between Ottawa and Montreal, but do not have an unobstructed view of the western horizon. The weather was cold (around -10C), windy but beautifully clear.Around 4:15 PM, I jumped in my car with my 8 meg Canon EOS Digital Rebel with a 300 mm lens. I drove to a country sideroad with a great western view and waited for dusk. Around 5:00, I’m sitting in the car admiring Venus sitting low in the southwest, and a prominent jet contrail on the horizon about 10 degrees to Venus’ right, and a little lower. Checking it out with my camera, I see that it is not a contrail at all, but a beautiful, bright, distinct comet with a tail a few degrees long, and a tight coma. I was knocked out. Not Hyakutake, nor Hale-Bopp stunned and surprised me as quickly as McNaught. I was so sure that not much would be visible when I left home, that I left my tripod behind. I still snapped a couple hundred exposures at different speeds and zoom settings, balancing the camera on the car’s roof.
    The next couple of evenings were cloud-covered, so that was it. But I will always remember the cold and the wind, and the beautiful image of Venus and Comet McNaught together in the low southwest that evening.

  35. Mz cool

    Rotorua New Zealand was the place to be.
    low pollution and Clear skies on thursday and Friday was enough to scare children and a few adults.
    Once in a lifetime experiance, but reaffirms just how insignificant we are in the scheme of things.

  36. Pete Sturtevant

    200 of us on Mt. Victoria, Auckland shared that once in a lifetime view tonight. Heavy clouds over the city to the south west didn’t bode well but McNaught appeared much higher in the sky then we expected and put on a terrific show to the delight of all.

  37. bassmanpete

    After first seeing Comet McNaught on Sunday 14th when the sky was still very light, here in Melbourne every night since has been clouded over. Tonight (Monday) however, was perfectly clear and the comet was spectacular. Even though it is supposedly past its brightest it’s clearly visible to the naked eye even when very close to the horizon and seen through the glare of the city lights. I’m heading out of town tomorrow to see it in a really dark sky!

  38. Erekose

    I saw i a few nights ago in Sydney, very cool! My friend sent me a link to some pretty spactacular images from a collegue as well that catch the tail seperation wonderfully

  39. Jason

    I managed to get a couple of decent ones from here in New Zealand’s Eastern Bay of Plenty, here’s an example:

  40. Melusine

    Jason, awesome image! Wow.

  41. John

    Not far from Queenstown, New Zealand (South Island) we are still getting great views when the weather allows (most recent was 2 days ago). A bonus has been views of the ISS.

    I suspect the best is now past, as the moon is now be setting later than the comet.

  42. Sarah

    Wow, nice pics everyone!
    I’m getting angrier and angrier at the clouds here (about 5 hrs west of Brisbane, normally a great sky at night – but cloudy now!!!)
    Is there a chance I can still see it? When’s the last time you guys saw it?


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar