Newly Discovered Comet in the Night Sky
The Ion Tail of New Comet SWAN Credit: Gerald Rhemann

Newly Discovered Comet in the Night Sky

11/05/2020Written by Malika Andress

May is fast becoming the month to look to the night skies and with a comet heading into view, we have something new to look for.

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mascot Telescope Right
May is fast becoming the month to look to the night skies and with a comet heading into view, we have something new to look for.
Comet Atlas as it breaks into pieces Credit: NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA)

With our skies rapidly filling with trails of brand-new satellites, it is something somewhat slower we are looking to see over the coming month, Comet C/2020 F8 Swan.

However, a word of warning on comets, as they can burn bright, but they can also fragment and disappear from our view as quickly as we discover them, as was the case with Comet Atlas, which astronomers believed crumbled apart as it got closer to the Sun.

Comet C/2020 F8 Swan was discovered whilst analysing data from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory’s (SOHO) SWAN instrument, hence the name, on March 25, 2020.

Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab Credit: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory/Jamie Hartman

Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab in Washington DC said: “For SWAN to see a comet, it means the comet must be producing a fairly significant amount of hydrogen. This is usually in the form of water-ice. It’s extremely likely that Comet SWAN is in ‘outburst’ mode. That is, some major eruption happened to this otherwise small and faint comet, releasing a massive cloud of hydrogen-rich volatiles. I doubt that the comet will maintain its current impressive appearance, and will quite possibly fade away soon. But we’ve only been viewing it for a couple of days, so no one knows.”

You should not worry about this comet impacting the Earth, as even at its closest point, 0.56 astronomical units, from Earth, it will still be roughly half the distance between the Sun and our planet.

Credit: Pete Lawrence

The comet makes its closest pass by Earth on May 13, however, given its current volatility, it may not remain intact or be visible by this point. If the comet does survive intact, you may be able to see it later in the month, as it approaches the Sun on 25 May.

If you want to try to see Comet Swan, you need to head out in the early hours of the morning and ensure you have dark clear skies. You are looking for a bright object with a greenish tinge and long, blue tail.

Look North-North East, and it will be fairly low in the sky. The later the better in terms of seeing it (with roughly 1am being optimal).

BBC Sky at Night’s Pete Lawrence has created this handy guide to use for potentially spotting Comet Swan over the coming few weeks.