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Collision Course

Comet McNaught

Comet McNaught photographed from Perth revealing why it was sometimes called a “fountain in the sky”.

By Stephen Luntz

Rob McNaught discovered the brightest comet of recent years and alerted observers to a meteor storm, but is now struggling for funds to detect asteroids on a collision course with Earth.

McNaught has enabled millions to witness astronomical events that put any fireworks display to shame, yet his efforts may cease for the lack of a budget smaller than what large cities spend each New Year’s Eve on their local fireworks show.

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Twice in the past dozen years, amateur astronomers have had reason to thank Rob McNaught as he has provided warning of possibly the two most spectacular events of those times. However, discovering comets and predicting meteor storms are sidelines to his work – detecting asteroids that may one day pose a threat to the Earth, or at least a small portion of it.

Although McNaught enrolled in a physics degree at Scotland’s University of St Andrews, he dropped out. He blames his lack of success on procrastination, saying: “I discovered I couldn’t learn everything I needed to in a couple of days before the exams”. Eventually McNaught graduated in psychology. However, the hours he spent as an amateur astronomer proved more useful.

“I have early memories of sitting at a window looking out at the sky,” says McNaught, ruefully adding: “These days I look at the sky through a computer screen”. In a sign of things to come, McNaught says: “In my teenage years I spent a lot of time watching meteor showers. Then I discovered my first comet in 1970 and was totally sold.”

McNaught has now discovered 70 comets (12 in collaboration), more than double anyone else. He is most proud of the first, which involved detailed measurements and skilled observations as an amateur. However, he is more famous for what he considers one of his lesser achievements, Comet McNaught 2006P1....

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.