Image of Comet McNaught taken from the Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales Australia on 20 January, 2007. Photo by Gordon Garradd
Above is an image of Comet McNaught taken from the Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales Australia on 20 January, 2007. Photo by Gordon Garradd

Comet’s Tail in the Evening Sky

Comet McNaught, discovered last August, has become one of the greatest comets of the last century. The comet was an extravagant object. Down under, McNaught was bright, clearly visible, and occupied a huge portion of the evening sky through the middle portion of January 2007.

Comet McNaught was visible from the northern hemisphere during the first half of January 2007, but observers at higher latitudes over Alaska, Canada, and the northern states were favored to see it. In the days leading up to the comet’s closest approach to the sun on January 15th, it brightened dramatically. For several days around January 10, the comet should have been bright enough to be observed immediately above the west Texas horizon at sunrise and sunset. In fact, it brightened so much that it was visible in broad daylight over North America from roughly the 13th to the 15th of this month. Increasing clouds and even an ice storm, however, restricted its visibility over the South Plains. Comet McNaught then slipped into the southern hemisphere sky on the 16th, and all hope for observing the comet from west Texas was lost…or was it?

During the evening of the 16th, an amateur astronomer in Colorado observed an unexpected and amazing sight. The comet’s tale had become so enormous, that it actually curved northward along McNaught’s recent path, and remained visible in the evening sky over the northern hemisphere. During mid-January, astronomers and enthusiasts located in the northern hemisphere worldwide observed the northern end of McNaught’s tail, as it appeared from our earthly perspective, to curve around the globe. Sky and Telescope Magazine reported that such a phenomenon has not been documented by astronomers since the year 1744.

As the clouds cleared in the wake of the winter storm on Saturday, 20 January 2007, National Weather Service meteorologist Todd Lindley photographed Comet McNaught’s tail from Frankford Avenue, just south of FM1585. The tail was visible to the un-aided eye around 730 PM CST as a diffuse colorless glow that arced from the southwestern horizon up toward the north, some 30 degrees above the horizon. Faint streamers were visible within the tail.

Picture of McNaught's tail taken around 7:30 pm Saturday January 20th from the southwest side of Lubbock. Photo by Todd Lindley.
Above is the picture of McNaught's tail taken around 7:30 pm Saturday January 20th from the southwest side of Lubbock. Photo by Todd Lindley.
Todd again photographed the comet’s tail Sunday evening. A bright glare from the moon and increasing clouds, however, made it much more difficult to see.
Picture of McNaught's tail taken around 7:10 pm Sunday January 21st, again from the southwest side of Lubbock. Photo by Todd Lindley.
Above is another picture of McNaught's tail taken around 7:10 pm Sunday January 21st, again from the southwest side of Lubbock. Photo by Todd Lindley.
Below is a location map that displays where McNaught's tail was visible from a northern latitude during mid-January 2007.
Location map for McNaught's tail. Click on the image to enlarge it. Map created by Paul Robinson of Boulder, Co.
Above is a location map for McNaught's tail. Click on the image to enlarge it. Map created by Paul Robinson of Boulder, Co.

 

 


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