CHRISTIAN GLOOR/CC BY 2.0/WIKIMEDIA
(TMU) – Last week, The Mind Unleashed reported that Comet SWAN, a stunning bright-green comet with an 10-million-mile long tail, would be visible all week while it makes its 11,597-year trip through the center of our solar system.
All this week, the massive Comet SWAN – which is likely to be the showcase comet of the year – will be visible throughout the northern hemisphere, lying low in the northeast.
With any luck, the comet – a “snowball” comprised of huge amounts of frozen gas, water, rock and dust – will offer some dazzling views which will only be faintly visible to the naked eye, meaning that it’s recommended that sky-watchers bring a pair of binoculars or even a telescope.
Always brilliant images from Fritz Helmut Hemmerich, and no different this time. Comet Swan from the Canary Islands on the 10th. pic.twitter.com/UJZFrKG4Xy
— Con Stoitsis (@vivstoitsis) May 10, 2020
SWAN – an acronym for the Solar Wind Anisotropies camera on NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) – was discovered in April by Michael Mattiazo, an amateur astronomer from Australia who noticed the intense green color emanating from the comet.
The space rock’s bright green tinge comes from the water vapor released into surrounding its icy core as it’s heated by the Sun, forming a hydrogen cloud that surrounds it and gives off its bright light.
Comet C/2020 F8 Swan at 4 degs elevation this morning Image Fritz Helmut Hemmerich. pic.twitter.com/P9jwqnv42t
— Con Stoitsis (@vivstoitsis) May 16, 2020
Comet SWAN arrived shortly after the much-anticipated Comet C/2019 Y4 ATLAS fizzled out. Astronomers had hoped that ATLAS, which significantly brightened at a rapid pace toward the end of last year, would be the most significant naked-eye comet in a decade. However, the comet unceremoniously crumbled apart, depriving us of any spectacle whatsoever.
When it comes to Comet SWAN, the jury is out as to whether stargazers will have a great treat this week or if it’s going to eventually be the same sorry dud ATLAS turned out to be.
— Corey S. Powell (@coreyspowell) May 9, 2020
In a news release last week, the European Space Agency wrote:
“The comet’s vigor could be significant for observers on Earth. The more material ejected from the comet, the more sunlight it reflects and the more visible it becomes. Currently moving from the southern to the northern skies, it is just faintly visible to the naked eye, but current estimates suggest that, by the end of May, it could be significantly brighter – if it survives that long.”
However, astrophysicist Jackie Faherty at the American Museum of Natural History told Forbes:
“I’m feeling a little less excited about Comet SWAN.
“It swept in just after Comet Atlas fizzled, something comets are notorious for. They tease you into thinking they’re going to put on a beautiful, bright spectacular show, then they fizzle out before they become visible to the naked eye.”
Indeed, while images of the comet shared online suggest a brilliant display, most of those images required cameras using long exposures and even telescopes, resulting in imagery our eyes alone could never see.
Comet SWAN has gotten a bit higher for my location in southwest Alabama. So here it is through trees!
SWAN revealed some of the tail. Image Richard Pickard. pic.twitter.com/hUHcDWoPqF
— Con Stoitsis (@vivstoitsis) May 13, 2020
But this week still remains the best chance for us to catch a glimpse of SWAN, even if it’s not going to be a simple matter of peeking upwards through the blinds.
Instead, you’re going to have to get up very early – or stay up very late – and bring a pair of binoculars. You’ll also need to be very patient, and have a good knowledge of the stars.
Today, before sunrise, Comet SWAN may have reached its brightest and most visible point, lying low in the northeast about 10º above the horizon right at the start of nautical dawn.
On Wednesday, May 20, Comet SWAN will be extremely close to the star Algol in Perseus, in the predawn twilight sky.
Next Tuesday, May 26, is when Comet SWAN will come closest to the Sun and will disappear in its glare. At that point, the comet will switch from being visible in the morning to before dawn to being visible after sunset during the evening.
And with any luck, after sunset on Wednesday, June 3, SWAN will be passing close to Capella in Auriga.
Remember: a comet is a purely natural phenomenon and not a foreboding doomsday omen or sign of good luck – it’s simply a ball of gas, dust, and ice.
Either way, happy hunting!