Photo in the News: Superbright Comet Sweeps Across Southern Skies

Comet McNaught photo
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January 18, 2007—Going blind isn't usually a worry when watching for comets passing near Earth. But that's what astronomers say could happen if people aren't careful when they scan the skies for a glimpse of comet McNaught.

The comet is currently visible in the Southern Hemisphere near the horizon at dawn and dusk. It passes close to the sun, so observers are being cautioned not to accidentally gaze directly at the rising or setting star.

The fiery apparition—shown this morning through a gap in the clouds above Christchurch, New Zealand—is being touted as the brightest comet in 40 years, prompting crowds of hopeful amateurs to train their eyes on the sky.

Australian astronomer Robert McNaught first discovered the comet last August via a telescope at Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, Australia. The celestial body's orbit brought it close to the sun in early January, making the comet visible to the naked eye in the Northern Hemisphere.

Since then comet McNaught had it's nearest brush with the sun and became visible only to Southern Hemisphere sky-watchers. Right now the 6.2-mile-wide (10-kilometer-wide) comet is about 74.5 million miles (120 million kilometers) away from Earth and is traveling at nearly 62 miles (100 kilometers) a second. The once-in-a-lifetime view should last for a few more days.

—Victoria Gilman

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