Look to the western sky this weekend and see what is being called the most brilliant comet to grace the space around Earth since 1965. Comet McNaught will be visible from most of Chile for the next few days, so hope that the current cloud cover will disappear and set the stage for a beautiful cosmic experience.

Comet McNaught, named for Australian astronomer and comet discoverer Robert McNaught, has become known in the astronomy community as "The Great Comet of 2007." It was first detected in August 2006 but has only been visible to the naked eye since the beginning of this month and has been the hot topic among space buffs and casual sky observers for the past three weeks.

Observers in the northern hemisphere were the first to catch sight of McNaught during the first two weeks of January, and between January 12 and 15, it passed the sun on its way to the southern hemisphere. Witnesses could view its light show by either standing behind buildings that were blocking the sun or blocking it with their hand, and looking directly to the east to see what was described as a long, bright cloud.

After passing the sun, Comet McNaught was first viewed in Australia and is now traveling across the southern hemisphere. This weekend it will be passing right over Chile. In most areas, the comet is visible in the day and early evening skies.
On January 12, astronomers decided that McNaught was the brightest comet in the past 40 years, replacing Comet Ikeya-Seki, which ignited the skies in 1965.

Astronomers assign brightness ratings to all "celestial objects," including comets, with scores represented by numerical values. The lower the number, the brighter the object. Comet McNaught's score is minus five, which is brighter than Venus, the brightest star, with a score of minus four. For comparison, the full moon has a score of minus 12.7.

For those hoping to catch a glimpse at the astronomical spectacle this weekend, it is suggested that you find a vantage point that is unobstructed by tall buildings or hills. If the sky is clear enough, looking to the west, the direction in which the sun sets, the comet will be visible and resemble an elongated, bright cloud. Though it is possible to see the comet without any tools, if all the previously mentioned conditions are met, it will be easier with the help of a decent set of binoculars.

Astronomers say the comet will get thinner as time passes and will eventually disappear. However, the next few nights are predicted to provide some of the best viewing.

Chile is a known hotspot for astronomical surveillance and boasts some of the world's foremost observatories. Brilliant photos of the illumination from Comet McNaught (see one above) have been taken by the Paranal Observatory on Cerro Paranal, located just 120 km south of Antofagasta. The center features a strong instrument for viewing space, the Very Large Telescope (VLT). If only we all had a VLT to view Comet McNaught.