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Look for a comet…

While we all wait for the first display of noctilucent clouds to appear in the sky above the UK (come on!!! What are you waiting for?!?!?! GET ON WITH IT!!!!!) there’s something else to see in the sky – a comet!

Until recently Comet McNaught – which is, apparently, making its first trip into the inner solar system, so is very welcome “fresh meat” for comet observers! – has been the reserve of telescope-owning comet watchers, but it has now brightened enough to be visible in just a pair of binoculars, if you know exactly where to look, and it MIGHT be bright enough to see with the naked eye by the weekend.

Ok, so where is it? And how do you see it?

Comet McNaught is currently drifting through the constellation of Perseus, which makes it circumpolar from the UK (i.e. it never sets, it just wheels round and round the Pole Star), but because the night sky is only dark for a short time at the end of these long summer days the comet is only visible for a couple of hours either side of midnight. So, you need to look for it between, say, 11pm and 3am.

Photographs of Comet McNaught show it has developed a tail, a nice 5 degrees long one I seem to recall, and is now spottable in binoculars. By weekend it should be a naked eye object, and by the time of its closest approach to Earth on June 15th it might… MIGHT… be magnitude 2, making it as bright as the stars of the Big Dipper. Again, we’ll have to wait and see; comets are notoriously unreliable and unpredictable, they just do what the heck they want, so all we can do is find this comet and see what it’s up to.

So how do you find it? Simple: you use this simple chart:

If you click on that image to enlarge it you’ll see that Comet McNaught is quite easy to find – just look for the distinctive “W” of Cassiopeia, which will be low in the NW sky, hanging just above the trees and rooftops, and then sweep the area of sky just below and to its left; that’s where Perseus is, and that’s where you’ll find the comet. You’re looking for a thin, misty streaky blurry something, with a “star” at its head, a bit like a small detached length of airplane vapour trail. Spot something like that, and you’ll have found Comet McNaught!

Couple of more detailed charts for readers who know this part of the sky…

Some tips:

To find the right area of sky, first find the “W” of Cassiopeia… follow an imaginary line down to its lower left, and you’ll see a bright(ish) star there, at the centre of Perseus. Then just sweep your binoculars around that area – SLOWLY! Don’t rush it!

But before even doing that, train your binocs on a bright star and focus them shaprly on that. Then you’ll be sure that if the comet is there to see, you will see it; it won’t be missed because your binocs weren’t in focus.

Above all, BE PATIENT! Comets are hard to see at the best of times, especially if you don’t know what you’re really looking for. And with a bright sky to fight, finding McNaught won’t be easy. But stick with it, it’ll be worth it. 🙂