University Lowbrow Astronomers

C/2006 P1 McNaught—A Simple Story about a Comet.

by Mark S Deprest (duh, like that’s a surprise)
Printed in Reflections: February, 2007.

Comet McNaught #1

By now almost everyone in the club knows of my fascination with comets, and for those who don’t... just ask me about my collection of comets. I have collect, observed, drawn or photographed and logged 41 different comets in the past 12 years. Each and every one of them has only served to whet my appetite for more. Every one has been special, and every one has been different. I look forward to every new comet discovery and hope that it will brighten enough to be collected by me.

But enough about me and my little obsession, this is a story about Comet C/2006 P1 McNaught. So, lets start with its discovery, R. H. McNaught (Siding Spring Observatory, Australia) discovered this comet on CCD images obtained with the 0.5-m Uppsala Schmidt telescope on 2006 August 7.51. The images had been obtained as part of the Siding Spring Survey. He described the comet as magnitude 17.3, with a faint coma 20 arc seconds across in moonlight.

It was imaged an observed by many of my comet crazy compatriots in September and October as it brighten steadily. By the end of October it became brighter than 13th magnitude and that put within range of my equipment and skies. So on November 12th I added this one to my collection as number 39 and because this comet’s path followed just north of the ecliptic, any observations done after November were pretty compromised by twilit skies and low altitudes.

Fast forward to January 1st 2007 and McNaught had brightened to 3.5 magnitude and racing toward negative magnitudes and perihelion on January 12th. Because of its northern position in relationship to the Sun and the time of the year (more time with the Sun below the horizon than above) it had become both a morning and evening apparition. Now the skies in the Ann Arbor area were cooperating with their usual lack of enthusiasm and it began to appear that perihelion and this naked eye comet (now being touted as the “Great Comet” of 2007) would pass un-witnessed by me or any of the Lowbrows.

Solar Pillar

But that all changed on January 10, 2007 when the skies of Southeast Lower Michigan opened up for one last chance to see the “Brightest Comet of the last 30 years” as some overly enthusiastic “science reporters” were saying. All day long the sky was totally cloudless and about 2:00pm, I received a call from a rather excited John Causland telling me that we should try and see this comet tonight right after sunset and after some confusing discussion we decided to meet on the top of the toboggan hill at Leslie Park around 5:30pm. I arrived with my 10x70 binoculars and climbed to the top of the hill just in time to see a number of wide bands of thick clouds moving right into the area where the comet would be. These clouds and the setting sun made for an incredible sunset but really threatened our chances of seeing this comet. Michigan astronomy is at best hit or miss and during the winter months almost completely non-existent. As I watched the setting sun throw up a crimson solar pillar against the dark purple-blue backdrop of the ever increasing bands of clouds, I remembered my cell phone had a small camera built into it. Although, only 1.3mp resolution I decided to try and capture a couple of images of this incredibly beautiful sunset.

Comet McNaught #2

Just as the quickly as they formed the solar pillars disappeared and just then Jack Brisbane showed up with his binoculars and tripod hoping to get a glimpse of this comet too. Jack and started to scan the area where the comet should be and through our binos we saw nothing but clouds. But there was still a chance that these bands of clouds would split open enough for a quick look at this comet. Then it happened just as John Causland pulled up and was getting out of his car Jack and I both shouted almost simultaneously, “THERE IT IS!!!” John and his guest climbed the little hill and joined us just as the comet disappeared behind a thin cloud band. It would be a minute before it peaked out again, but when it finally showed itself all of us got to see a truly beauty of a comet.

Words never seem to convey the excitement or pleasure that astronomical sights instill in the observer and images only come close, so my advise to those of you who want to feel the same as the four of us did that cold early evening of January 10, 2007, is get active and keep looking at every opportunity our finicky Michigan weather gives us. Persistence pays off! And for the rest of you who are satisfied with words and images here are a few of both.

Comet McNaught #3

Robert McNaught’s picture of Robert McNaught’s Comet C/2006 P1 2006 taken on January 20, 2007—Image used with permission.

Photo Credits


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