Comet McNaught pays a visit

The inner solar system recently played host to the brightest comet for nearly 40 years. Comet McNaught surprised astronomers by outshining Venus for a few days around the 12-16th January 2007, as it made its closest approach to the Sun. The comet was discovered by the astronomer Robert McNaught last August 2006 at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia.

Although poor weather hampered most chances of seeing it from the UK, some people were able to spot the comet just above the western horizon shortly after sunset. The following image was taken in Leeds (West Yorkshire) and clearly shows the bright core of the comet with a faint tail stretching away from it.

Image of Comet McNaught
Image of Comet McNaught taken near Leeds - Credit: Paul Willows

You can think of comets as great dirty snowballs that hurtle around the solar system in stretched-out oval orbits around the Sun. Those that get too close find material on their surfaces being evaporated (turned into gas) by the immense heat of the Sun. The water vapour and dust released is then blown away by Sun's rays to form an enormous tail that stretches out behind the comet.