ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Nothing can keep dedicated stargazers from trying to get a glimpse of the brightest comet seen in decades — not even temperatures as low as 40 below zero.
There hadn't been a lot of buzz about Comet McNaught, discovered just last year. But as the comet got closer to the sun, it brightened and the word spread — the comet was special.
Martin Gutoski drove to a lookout about five miles north of Fairbanks on Tuesday evening, when skies were especially cold and clear — good comet-viewing weather, even if it was frigid.
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The amateur astronomer waited for sunset and watched as the sky turned salmon red and darkened. He turned his attention toward the spot on the horizon where the sun set.
"It is a very large spike, almost a vertical spike at sunset. ... I was more than impressed with it," he said.
Comet McNaught, discovered last year by Australian astronomer R.H. McNaught, is expected to remain visible throughout the Northern Hemisphere through Friday, when it will come to within 16 million miles of the sun and be obscured by the sun's glare.
After that, it will eventually emerge for people in the Southern Hemisphere to enjoy.
Five hundred miles north of Fairbanks in Barrow, at the top of North America, Glenn Sheehan said he hadn't heard anything about a comet until a colleague spread the word that something was different overhead.
In Barrow's long, dark winter, something new in the sky is always welcome, Sheehan said. The sun set there on Nov. 18, not to rise again until Jan. 23.
"The only other outdoor distraction today was a polar bear and two cubs going through here," he said Wednesday.
Sheehan, executive director of the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, went out to take a look Monday afternoon. He said he wasn't sure what the object was, briefly entertaining the thought that it was a plane.
"That didn't make sense, and I gave up and started calling people to find out," he said.
Comets are collections of ice, gas and dust that orbit the sun and usually have two tails, one made of dust and the other of ionizing gases.
NASA astronomer Tony Phillips says Comet McNaught is the brightest comet visible from Earth in 30 years. It is six times brighter than Hale-Bopp in 1997, and 100 times brighter than Halley's Comet when it appeared in 1986, Phillips told The Associated Press on Thursday.
"It will remain a spectacular comet for weeks, perhaps months, in the Southern Hemisphere," Phillips said. "It could emerge as the brightest comet in recorded history."