My Pal Elliot met me in the Steam Trains parking lot at 4:40 on January 9th, half an hour before sunset. We often hike the East Bay Hills together, but this time was different. We had a mission: to catch a glimpse of Comet McNaught, (aka C/2006 P1), the celestial visitor darting briefly through our solar system.
McNaught was discovered on August 7th, and no one knew how bright it would be—comets are often mysterious and unpredictable—but the stories we’d been reading (“one of the brightest comets of the past century”) were irresistible.
We walked up the road to the microwave tower, and sat on a log as the day ended. It was one of the loveliest sunsets I’d ever seen, as the solar disk flattened across the Pacific with the Golden Gate Bridge and Mt. Tamalpais silhouetted in the foreground. The lights of Oakland and San Francisco glittered below. As the sky’s glow faded, and brilliant Venus came into view, we scanned the western horizon in vain: no comet.
We were baffled. How had we missed it? Had we totally blown the time, the dates, the direction? Finally, after a few slugs of Mekong whiskey, we began our retreat to the parking lot. Halfway down the hill I stopped at a break in the trees, raised my binoculars for one last look – and gasped in amazement. Two fingers above the horizon, just north of where the sun had set, I saw it: the brilliant white coma of McNaught, trailing a long, gossamer tail that curved in the solar breeze.
Once we knew where to look, McNaught was clearly visible with the naked eye: an absolutely gorgeous sight, like a comet out of a fairytale.
McNaught will soon disappear behind the sun, re-emerge for viewers on the Earth’s southern hemisphere, and swing off toward the reaches of deep space. For the next few days, though—through January 13th—those of us in the northern hemisphere, with a clear view of the eastern and/or western horizon, will have a chance to see this beautiful apparition at dawn and sunset. Catch it if you can.