The Great and Frustrating Comet of 2007

Northern Hemisphere stargazers have never had any shortage of reasons to be jealous of our Southern Hemisphere cousins. For decades we've drooled enviously over pictures of Omega Centauri's sun-mottled heart, and the star-frothed billows of the Magellanic Clouds. We've gritted our teeth looking at double-page spreads of the Milky Way imaged from the outback, complete with a Galactic Core so bright it casts shadows. Now we have another reason to go Elpheba-green with jealousy-Comet McNaught.

I managed to glimpse the Great Comet of 2007 only three times before it plummeted out of the northern sky and strode out onto the southern stage, unfurling her beautiful tail for all to see. The first time I saw it, after a knuckle-gnawingly frustrating week of vain attempts, it was after an unexpectedly clear WSW sky at teatime lured me, for the fourth night in a row, back up the treacherous, sloppy-mud covered track that leads up to Kendal Castle. McNaught wasn't visible to naked eye but it was very easy to see in binoculars. The head looked orange-yellowish in my shaking 10x50s, and there seemed, when using averted vision, to be quite a fan-shaped tail sweeping to the upper right. Not bad, I thought, but no Hale-Bopp.

The next night it became clear that my McNaught spotting campaign was cursed. There'd been a clear sky all afternoon so I headed back up to my castle observing site at 15.50 feeling pretty optimistic. I started to set up my scope... tripod out... tube on... eyepieces - no eyepieces! I'd left them at my flat! Spotting someone taking sunset pictures nearby I asked him if he would watch my things while I ran home for them.  Thankfully he said yes, so I ran back down the hill like the Duke of York, grabbed the eyepieces, ran back again -

There! The comet! Much brighter than the last time I saw it, its tail well developed too. I snapped a few pictures through the eyepiece with my digital, then started to set up a photo tripod to take some images with an SLR - no!! Rapid release head missing, so no way of mounting the camera... Was McNaught playing with me, laughing at me for telling everyone that no, comets don't bring bad luck, that's just superstitious nonsense...

Even as I threw the useless tripod back into its bag cloud, thick and heavy, started to boil up from behind the western horizon. I took a couple of pictures thru the eyepiece before McNaught suddenly vanished, and looking up from the eyepiece I saw a mountain of cloud covering the sky from S to W.

It took more than 40 mins to clear, while the rest of the sky was perfectly clear, but when it finally moved away the comet was beautiful, shining gold, with a tail several degrees long. But there was no time to take any pictures; literally 2 minutes later it slid behind more cloud and was lost, this time with no hope of recovery. All that was left, for a few heartbeats, was a hint of a golden tail, jabbing up from behind the cloud like a distant WW2 searchlight, then that too was gone.

My final date with Comet McNaught came from nowhere. I was shopping in town, and coming out of one store looked up and saw the sky that had previously been a sheet of unbroken grey was now tattered and ripped everywhere, with tantalising gaps of blue showing through. Within half an hour I was setting off up to the Castle again, travelling light - just my binocs, digital camera and SLR in my quick-grab rucksack. It had been blowing a gale all day in Kendal, with sheets of icy rain continually slapping across the town, and as I trudged up to the castle yet again that rain returned and the open patches of clear sky started to close up. But I kept going, putting faith in the gut feeling I had that just perhaps, the Universe was going to take pity on me and give me another glimpse...

There was no chance of taking any pictures: the wind was too strong, slapping me like a hand, over and over, so all I could do was watch the comet through my binocs, stopping now and again to wipe rain off the lenses. Eventually the comet vanished behind cloud again, but I didn't care: I'd seen the Great Comet again, so packing my binocs away I said goodbye to McNaught, surrendering it to the southern sky...

Of course, we all know what happened next. McNaught has reappeared in the southern sky dazzlingly bright, with a tail that puts even Hale-Bopp's to shame. Photographs taken from the shadow of Sydney Harbour Bridge, or from the mountains of new Zealand and South Africa show a truly Great Comet putting on the show of a lifetime.

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