Newly Discovered Comet SWAN Approaches Earth

~2 min

Not so long ago, astronomers all over the world have been keeping an eye on Comet ATLAS in the hope of seeing a spectacular naked-eye show. The comet broke up, leaving no chance to see it. The good news is that a recently discovered Comet SWAN occupies its place and promises a dazzling display, too. Here’s what to expect.

Comet C/2020 F8 (SWAN): Discovery

C/2020 F8 (SWAN) or Comet SWAN was discovered on April 11, 2020, by an amateur astronomer from Australia, Michael Mattiazzo. He was analysing data from NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), namely images from the SWAN camera (Solar Wind Anisotropies instrument). Michael noticed a comet that suddenly appeared in images that were taken on March 25, 2020. It was the new Comet SWAN, named after the SOHO’s device.

SOHO’s SWAN camera has nothing to do with finding comets. It was designed to scan the Solar system for hydrogen. Comet SWAN appeared on the images from the camera because of a fairly significant amount of hydrogen that it is currently emitting in the form of water-ice.

How to see Comet SWAN in the sky?

C/2020 F8 (SWAN) is 1.1 AU (99 million miles, 160 million km) from Earth. It is now better seen from the Southern hemisphere and is expected to reach naked-eye visibility by mid-May. The comet is currently located in the constellation Sculptor, near the star Fomalhaut. Shining at an apparent magnitude of 8, Comet SWAN is now bright enough to be seen in binoculars. In late April, the comet will cross the constellation of Aquarius. In May, it will pass near or through the constellations Pisces, Cetus, Aries, Perseus, and Auriga.

You can easily find Comet C/2020 F8 (SWAN) in the sky and track its movement with the astronomical app Star Walk 2. Turn on notifications in the menu of the app not to miss time to observe the comet with the naked eye (if that happens). Star Walk 2 always keeps you updated on upcoming astronomical events and space news.

Will it become a naked eye object?

According to the calculation of the comet's orbit, C/2020 F8 (SWAN) will make the closest approach to our planet at a distance of 52 million miles (84 million km) on May 12, 2020. Around May 27, 2020, the comet is expected to reach perihelion (closest approach to the Sun), when it will be 40 million miles (64.4 million km) distant.

It is not yet clear whether Comet SWAN will evolve into a bright naked-eye object in the nearest future. Astronomers suggest that the сomet may be in outburst mode now. If the comet's outburst in brightness continues at the current rate, it could reach a peak magnitude of 3.5 in May 2020. Such magnitude would make Comet SWAN bright enough for observation with the naked eye. In case the comet reaches the third magnitude, observers from the Northern hemisphere will also have a chance to see it.

However, it is also likely that Comet SWAN may fade or disintegrate like its predecessor Comet ATLAS. Time will tell.

Updated May 7, 2020: Comet SWAN is now visible to the naked eye. Click here for more information.