Heavenly Body Comet McNaught Lights up the Night Sky

It is so impressive that it's already been named the "Great Comet of 2007." McNaught is the brightest comet of the past 40 years and it is delighting astronomy fans across the southern hemisphere.

By Stefan Schmitt

It may be a little bit early to be talking about the best of 2007, but in astronomy there is already a clear winner. The McNaught Comet, otherwise known as C/2006 P1, has been given the title "Great Comet of 2007," even though it's only January.

In fact, according to the European Southern Observatory (ESO), it is brighter than Hale-Bopp, Comet West, or any other comet of the last 40 years.

"I'm not well enough acquainted with historical comets, but it is the best I've seen in my lifetime," Robert McNaught, the man who discovered the heavenly body, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Since the end of last week, the comet has been visible at night in the southern hemisphere; before that, its flight path was directly in front of the sun, which made it invisible to observers on earth.

The comet is currently delighting astronomy fans across the southern hemisphere, from New Zealand and Australia, to South America and Southern Africa. Two weeks ago it was possible to see the comet in Europe, particularly at dawn.

The comet is 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) in diameter and as it came closer to the sun it brightened rapidly. It is now passing the earth at a speed of 100 kilometers per second (62 miles per second).

The Scottish-born McNaught, who works at the Siding Spring Observatory in Australia, discovered the C/2006 P1 in August. "It does feel a bit strange hearing my name on national news broadcasts, but the reality is they are talking about the comet and not me," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

"Several folks with my surname, none directly related, have contacted me, mostly from the UK, Australia or the USA," he said. "They seem very proud of having their family name emblazoned across the sky."

However, the comet has also caused some undue alarm. In New Zealand's capital Auckland, people rang the emergency services after they mistook the McNaught comet for a crashing airplane.


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