On Thursday night we traipsed up the road to see if we could catch a glimpse of C/2006 P1 (McNaught). These astronomical events so often a let down after all the hype, we didn’t know quite what to expect. For a while we were peering at Venus trying to work out it if was in fact a comet at not a planet. In fact our view was just blocked by a shoulder of Mt Ngongotaha. Luckily we persevered, and as we drove further west of the mountain, suddenly the comet appeared. And it was so spectacular, there was certainly no mistaking it for a planet or a star! We parked the car on a country road and got out the binoculars, not that you needed them to see it clearly. It was absolutely breathtaking, like a glittery shooting star from a children’s picture book, but real, and so mind-blowing vast. The tail is 15 million km long. As it “landed” on the horizon it looked like the steam shooting up from a geyser and then drifting sideways in the wind. (Comets actually have two tails, the gas which is blown directly away from the sun by the solar wind, and the dust which is pushed away by the sun’s light, but because it’s heavier it lags and starts to orbit the sun itself, thus forming the curved shape that we can see so clearly behind McNaught).
Last night we knew exactly where to look, and positioned ourselves at a lookout on the hills behind lake Rotorua. We could make out anything at first. There were other people out looking for it, and we reassured them that it was the right direction, and we wouldn’t miss it when it did appear. Then I spotted it, just a tiny smudge at first, but growing steadily brighter. It was even more stunning, with the orange tinge of sunset still intense below.
This website has a gallery with heaps of stunning photos, of which the ones from Aotearoa are some of the most spectacular! One of my current favourites is this one by Jamie Newman of Papakura, Auckland, because it shows the tail so well. Larger version on the gallery website.