Comet discoverer Robert McNaught calls it "a night on the stellar career in Outback Australia"



December 21, 2018 06:29:17

Robert McNaught is in an enviable position where he can close his eyes and identify the best moment of his career.

"I have dreamed of this moment since I was a child," said the Scottish astronomer, now much better known as a newly retired Australian Siding Spring Observatory.

On the night of January 19, 2007, the man who is now the greatest discoverer of comets in the world watched as one of the brightest comets of living memory came into a perfect view in the sky.

"It was the brightest comet observed by any astronomer in the world over the last 50 years," he said.

It was so bright for the next two days that you could see it with the naked eye in daylight.

At night it was "spectacular".

In astronomical terms, Mr. McNaught hit the jackpot and "it was just fabulous."

From blob to show

In late 2006, Mr. McNaught, who is still based in Coonabarabran, in northwestern New South Wales, discovered the gigantic ball of ice, gas, and dust by chance.

"That night I would normally have turned off my equipment because of the bright moon, but I noticed anyway," he said that night.

"The software took a moving object and caught my attention, but at the time it was just a small, confusing bubble."

Anticipation built overnight as the Comet, later named Comet McNaught 2006 P1, traced toward Earth.

The astronomer knew how comets were inconstant, but he believed that it was exceptional.

"A colleague told me that comets are like cats – they have tails and they do exactly what they want!" he said.

"But when it arrived, it was intensely brilliant. It exceeded everyone's expectations."

Eleven years later, comet McNaught is a household name among astronomers.

Brighter than the famous Halley Comet, its tail stretched for hundreds of millions of miles.

Mr. McNaught's estimated comet memories will be with him forever, he said.

"Unless there are surprising advances in medical technology on the horizon, we will never see it again. The next will be in 93,000 years."

Young scotch in outback, Australia

As a young boy who grew up in rural Scotland, Mr. McNaught never imagined a life for himself in Australia, much less the small town of Coonabarabran, nestled at the foot of the Warrumbungle Mountains and home to the renowned Siding Spring Observatory.

"When I was growing up, everyone had a coal fire, so I was lucky if I could see more than two dozen stars in the sky," he said.

So how did a young Scotsman develop a passion for stargazing? Through the magic of an image book, of course.

"I remember when I was seven years old, my friend and I received prizes for good participation in Sunday school," he said.

"My friend received a book about space, so we traded. From there, I read everything I could about astronomy."

After finishing school, Mr. McNaught enrolled in an astronomy course at the university.

But the disaster happened. He hated it.

"I had absolutely terrible grades and I thought I was wasting everybody's time, so I left astronomy," he said.

He did, however, hold a bachelor's degree in psychology and, months after graduating, got a job using a satellite tracking telescope, bringing him to Australia.

Throughout his 30-year stellar career, Mr. McNaught discovered more than 80 comets.

"All my career I have had a strong obsession in astronomical discovery and for a while I discovered a comet every six weeks, including three in 24 hours," he said.

Day in the life of a comet hunter

After spending three decades exploring the dark night, Mr. McNaught can feel the cost of shift work on his body.

Five years after retiring, he can only sleep for a few hours at a time.

"My sleep pattern was basically destroyed," he said.

During your professional life, your work day would start at dusk.

He drank breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the "early hours of the night" of the evening, often while he was "at work," observing the chosen piece of the night sky.

On a clear winter night, the shifts used to extend for 12 hours.

Mr. McNaught said there was no rest for the wicked, even on cloudy nights.

"You always find a job – be it maintenance, report writing, or software upgrade," he said.


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