88ºF

Comet SWAN could soon brighten a sky near you

As Comet ATLAS breaks apart, SWAN could steal the show in the coming weeks.

In this NASA handout, a 30-second exposure of a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower Aug.12, 2016, in Spruce Knob, West Virginia. The annual display, known as the Perseid shower because the meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Perseus in the northeastern sky, is a result of Earth's orbit passing through debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle.
In this NASA handout, a 30-second exposure of a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower Aug.12, 2016, in Spruce Knob, West Virginia. The annual display, known as the Perseid shower because the meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Perseus in the northeastern sky, is a result of Earth's orbit passing through debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)

ORLANDO, Fla,- – It was just last month we told you about newly-discovered Comet ATLAS having the potential to be the next, great naked-eye comet. ATLAS had been brightening at an extremely rapid rate giving sky-watchers hope that the long comet drought was coming to an end.

As local experts Seth Mayo, curator of astronomy at the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach and Dr. Yan Fernandez, a professor with UCF’s Department of Physics accurately pointed out, comets are notoriously unpredictable and a break up was possible.

Just days after writing about the potential of ATLAS, it started fading in brightness, leading some experts to believe that it was breaking apart. A few weeks later, the Hubble Space Telescope captured stunning images confirming those fears.

Enter Comet SWAN.

SWAN was discovered in late March by amateur astronomer Michael Mattiazo after analyzing data from NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory SWAN instrument. Since the discovery in late March, SWAN has brightened into a faint naked-eye comet for the Southern Hemisphere. If it holds together, the Northern Hemisphere will soon get in on the party. Viewing, though, will come with some challenges.

“I have been very intrigued by the prospects of Comet SWAN being visible in our morning sky low in the east at the beginning of this month and then towards the northeast by late May,” said Mayo. “Again I am being optimistically cautious as we always are with comets, but still hopeful for a decent show soon.”

Central Florida Connection

The data analyzed came from NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory SWAN instrument. SOHO was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Station on an Atlas II-AS rocket in December of 1995 . SOHO was a joint mission between NASA and the European Space Agency to study the sun and solar wind. It was only designed for a two year mission, but because of its success, has been extended several times.

The Solar Wind ANisotropies or SWAN is one of the instruments onboard SOHO. SWAN was not designed to find comets, but rather look away from the sun, measuring hydrogen blowing into the inner Solar System to study the solar wind. The fact that SWAN the instrument picked up a comet must mean that SWAN the comet, you now see where the name comes from, is spewing lots of hydrogen.

“One thing that stands out to me when it comes to comets are the diverse ways they are discovered,” Mayo said. With ATLAS, it was by the near-Earth asteroid seeking observatory in Hawaii of the same name. With this new comet, I find it quite interesting that it was discovered with the SWAN instrument onboard the solar observatory SOHO, an instrument not intended for this purpose.

How To See

SWAN is currently faintly visible to the naked eye in the Southern Hemisphere, but that is about to change. There will be challenges, however while trying to spot SWAN pending the comet doesn’t break apart in the coming weeks.

SWAN will move into the constellation Perseus during the third week of May. It will emerge on the other side of Perseus  by May 25.
SWAN will move into the constellation Perseus during the third week of May. It will emerge on the other side of Perseus by May 25.

From mid-to late May, SWAN will be very low in the east sky before sunrise, but hopefully getting brighter as it moves through the constellation Perseus by around May 20.

SWAN is expected to reach a peak magnitude of 3.5, making it visible to the naked eye. As with anything in the sky, the darker it is, the easier it will be to see.

The smaller the magnitude, the brighter the object. Most magnitudes of 5 or greater require a telescope or binoculars, but there are other factors such as the size of the object. Comet SWAN as of 5/8 has a magnitude of 5.3. It has been reported as naked-eye visible from the Southern Hemisphere.
The smaller the magnitude, the brighter the object. Most magnitudes of 5 or greater require a telescope or binoculars, but there are other factors such as the size of the object. Comet SWAN as of 5/8 has a magnitude of 5.3. It has been reported as naked-eye visible from the Southern Hemisphere.

If you aren’t an early riser, from late May to early June there will also be viewing opportunities after sunset. SWAN will, however, continue to be very low on the horizon, but more in the northeast sky. Comet SWAN will also become fainter as May turns into June.

As with ATLAS, a lot can happen in the coming weeks, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed. If SWAN ends up disappointing, the comet itself points out on twitter we’ll have another chance for another comet in the middle of summer.


About the Authors: