January 14th, 2007 5:33 pm | by Adrian Chen News | Posted In: CLEAN UP

Comet Watching, Mount Tabor Style

Tags: Outdoors

It's a few minutes to five atop Mt. Tabor on Friday night. About two-dozen people swaddled in scarves and jackets watch the sky to the southwest, through a break in the trees. A small telescope sits on a tripod; a family of five sits in a line while the father scans the sky with what looks to be the scope of a hunting rifle; a jogger slows, stops and stares. Others have binoculars and pace back and forth in front of the view, occasionally glassing the horizon where the sun burns slowly down and sets the sky on fire.

Everybody's waiting for the comet.

That would be Comet McNaught, the brightest comet visible from Earth in 30 years. The comet made an appearance Thursday night over the southwest skies of Portland, and multiple mentions in local and national media on Friday were enough to get people outside and to high ground. McNaught is unusually bright, but its close proximity to the sun makes it hard to see: The view must be carefully timed so that the glaring sun is below the horizon while the comet still hovers above. Right now, a gorgeous sunset is stretched out over the West Hills, but there's no comet.

“When's it happening?” whines a little girl to her dad. It's five. The crowd is growing restless.

Katie O'Reilly, at least, doesn't seem worried. She's an ornithologist at the University of Portland, and her bird-watching telescope is aimed at the horizon. People cluster around the telescope, and Katie runs the show like a director on the set of a Hollywood blockbuster. “The comet should appear at about the height of a fist held out to the horizon,” she explains. The group bristles with outstretched fists—a dozen people punching at the sky. But no comet.

Then the comet is just there, a tiny smear looking like a jet contrail. There are some scattered gasps as each member of the crowd—now grown to about 40—spots the comet at his or her own pace. The view through Katie's telescope is pretty impressive, but the comet looks best through a pair of binoculars I'm loaned as a reward for pointing it out to a man with a bushy beard: A white pinpoint trailing a delicate arcing wisp.

By 5:20 the comet has fallen to just above the orange-turning-black horizon, and the group has dwindled to about a dozen hardcore comet-gazers. At the reservoir below, an elderly woman looks around amidst a stampede of cars heading down Mt. Tabor—so many that the reservoir's security guards are directing traffic. “Where's the comet?” she asks. But it's already sunk below the horizon, headed for points south and deep, deep space.

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