Comet hunter Robert McNaught looks back on stellar career in Outback Australia
A new mural pays homage to Rob McNaught’s discoveries in his adopted hometown. (ABC Western Plains: Jessie Davies )
Robert H McNaught is in the enviable position where he can close his eyes and pinpoint the greatest moment in his career.
“I had dreamed of that moment since I was a kid,” said the Scottish astronomer, now much more renowned as a recently-retired stalwart of Australia’s Siding Spring Observatory.
On the night of January 19, 2007, the man who is now the world’s greatest comet discoverer watched as one of the brightest comets in living memory came into picture-perfect view in the sky.
“It was the brightest comet observed by any astronomer around the world in the past 50 years,” he said.
It was so bright for the next two days you could see it with the naked eye in daylight.
By night it was “spectacular”.
In astronomical terms, Mr McNaught had hit the jackpot, and “it was just fabulous”.
From blob to spectacle
C/2006 P1 (McNaught) came within 122 million km of Earth, making Rob McNaught a star. (Supplied: Rob McNaught)
In late 2006, Mr McNaught, who is still based in Coonabarabran in north-west New South Wales, had discovered the gigantic ball of ice, gas and dust by chance.
“That night I would have normally shut down my equipment due to the bright moon, but I observed anyway,” he said of that night.
“The software picked up a moving object and that caught my attention, but at the time it was just a tiny, fuzzy blob.”
Anticipation built night by night as the comet, thereafter named Comet McNaught 2006 P1, tracked toward Earth.
The astronomer knew how fickle comets were but he believed this one was exceptional.
“One colleague told me comets are like cats — they have tails and do exactly as they please!” he said.
“But when it arrived it was intensely bright. It vastly exceeded everyone’s expectations.”
Eleven years on, Comet McNaught is a household name among stargazers.
Brighter than the famed Halley’s Comet, its tail stretched out for hundreds of millions of kilometres.
Mr McNaught’s cherished memories of comet will be with him forever, he said.
“Unless there are astounding advances in medical technology on the horizon we’ll never see that one again. It will next come around in 93,000 years.”
Young Scot in outback Australia
As a young lad growing up in rural Scotland, Mr McNaught never imagined a life for himself in Australia, let alone the tiny town of Coonabarabran which is nestled at the foothills of the Warrumbungle Mountains and home to the renowned Siding Spring Observatory.
“When I was growing up everybody 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 Scot develop a passion for stargazing? Through the magic of a picture book, of course.
“I remember when I was seven years old my friend and I received prizes for good attendance for Sunday school,” he said.
“My friend was given a book about space, so we swapped. From then on I read everything I could about astronomy.”
After finishing school, Mr McNaught enrolled in an astronomy degree at university.
But disaster struck. He hated it.
“I had absolutely dreadful grades and I thought I was wasting everybody’s time, so I left astronomy,” he said.
He did, however, achieve an honours degree in psychology and within months of graduation he landed a job using a satellite tracking telescope, bringing him to Australia.
Over the course of his stellar 30-year career, Mr McNaught went on to discover more than 80 comets.
“All my career I had a strong obsession in astronomical discovery and for a while I discovered one comet roughly every six weeks, including three in 24 hours,” he said.
Day in the life of a comet hunter
Having spent three decades exploring the dark night, Mr McNaught can feel the toll of shift work on his body.
Five years into his retirement, he can only manage sleeping for a few hours at a time.
“My sleep pattern has basically been destroyed,” he said.
During his working life, his working day would begin at twilight.
He would take breakfast, lunch and dinner in the “wee hours” of the night, often whilst he was “on the job” observing the night’s chosen patch of sky.
The Siding Spring Observatory facilities hosted Mr McNaught throughout his project. (Supplied: Ssopete/Commons)
On a clear winter’s night, shifts would often extend to 12 hours.
Mr McNaught said there was no rest for the wicked, even on cloudy nights.
“You would always find jobs — whether that be maintenance, writing reports, or updating software,” he said.