Comet McNaught 2006 P1

I have had an interest in amateur astronomy since 1977. Over three decades, bright comets have been in particularly short supply. There have been a few highlights. Comet Iras-Araki -Alcock, Halley's Comet and Comet Hyakutake. Hale-Bopp wasn't very visible at my 35 degree south latitude. But after thirty years, Comet McNaught was finally and by any measure a 'great comet.'

I tried looking at it in daylight when reports came in. Canberra had a fair bit of bushfire smoke over the city and there was just too much glare. But when the comet moved far enough from the Sun, I spotted it in bright twilight, just 20 mins after sunset. What's more, the resulting photograph was a hand held 1/60 s snapshot taken with my compact digital. It clouded over for the next four days. On Saturday January 20th, it was finally clear again. There was still plenty of smoke around. I drove to a lookout on the north-west side of Canberra 6km drive from my place.

As the sun set, I attempted to align my equatorial mount using compass and clinometer. I wanted to start shooting in twilight. Half an hour after sunset, the comet became visible. I began shooting the bright head with a 500f4.5 lens during twilight. The sky was still bright so I used the camera's light meter to determine best exposure. As darkness descended, the tail grew and grew and grew. I marvelled at the size and the wonderful striated structure. The bright part of the tail stretched at least 40 degrees to the naked eye. There was just enough time after the end of twilight to take a couple of 5 min exposures. I set up my 80mm-200 ED f2.8 lens and took the shot on E200 slide film. I took another shot of the setting tail using a compact digital camera.

My long time friend, Greg Bond & I had talked for years about waiting for the "big one." It was here so I grabbed my mobile phone and called him. Greg was working in Broome way up in the north-west of WA. I was calling to give him a heads-up. Broome is 3500km west of Canberra and so the Sun hadn't even set yet. Greg told me was stuck under a large tropical storm and hadn't seen the sky for days. We've been good friends for years and always give each other a lot of grief so Greg didn't believe me when I told him how big and bright it was. By the end of the call I think I'd convinced him but he was still sounding dubious. I don't blame him.

I was right on the verge of buying a DSLR - a Pentax K10D. The comet galvanized me into action and I went out on Sunday January 21st and bought it. The K10D has great ergonomics. I read the manual for 10 mins, set a few parameters and then used it in the dark that night without even using a torch.

The rest of the week followed the same pattern. I went out as many nights as I could. The image I find most remarkable is the picture taken through cloud on January 23rd.

This picture was taken through cloud and still the tail is imaged. It is a composite of several images and the cloud was moving yet it is a dramatic testament to the brightness of the tail. That night, another friend, Andrew Wilson was sitting on a verandah at a beach resort in South Australia looking at the comet hanging over the ocean. I am frequently critical of mobile phones and what they've done to our society but they do have their uses. Later that night, Greg called. "THIS THING IS HUGE!" he said. I could here the excitement in his voice. I think he was looking at it through broken cloud. Greg was approaching the end of a three-week shift in Broome. But he had no equipment with him. In southeast Queensland, he has a fantastically appointed and equipped observatory but by the time he flew back to Brisbane, the Full Moon was interfering.

The last picture in this series was taken on January 26th. After this several nights of cloud, followed by a full Moon wiped out my chances of following the fading apparition. I think it is appropriate that for such a great comet, I didn't have to watch it fade from view. It went out with a bang.

Joe Cali


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