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Prime time for a comet

If you can get yourself someplace that has a clear view of sunset this evening, take the opportunity: You're likely to see the brightest comet in a generation as it's reaching its peak.

Yes, Comet McNaught is now brighter than Hale-Bopp, Kohoutek or Hyakutake - earlier comets that sparked high hopes but didn't quite meet their high expectations. In fact, according to the ICQ Comet Information Website, McNaught is almost as bright as Jupiter in the night sky. It's been 31 years since a comet was that bright.

Robin Loznak / Great Falls Tribune
Comet McNaught shines Tuesday evening
above the Rockies, west of Great Falls, Mont.

McNaught is due to round the sun on Friday, and could well brighten even more as it comes around the other side. When that happens, observers in the southern hemisphere could be treated to a comet so bright it'll be visible during daylight. But for northern observers, the next day or so could be as good as it gets.

"For observers in the northern Hemisphere, tonight is probably the best time to see it: Go outside this evening and face the sunset." SpaceWeather.com advises. "A clear view of the western horizon is essential, because the comet hangs very low. As the twilight fades to black, it should become visible to the naked eye. Observers say it's a fantastic sight through binoculars."

Don't confuse the comet with Venus, the only other object in post-sunset skies that's brighter. The planet is higher in the sky at sunset, while McNaught is the one with the faint tail.

If you need a map, you can check out the sky guide from Space.com, or SpaceWeather.com, or Sky & Telescope. The comet has also been visible in eastern skies just before sunrise, but it's been much harder to spot. Here's the chart from Space.com.

Even if you're socked in with clouds, you can watch the comet reach its climax online, courtesy of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. You can also enjoy galleries of comet images at SpaceWeather.com and Sky & Telescope. And to get a little extra information about what you're looking at, check out our "Inside a Comet" interactive.