Discovered in April 2020 by amateur astronomer Michael Mattiazo, comet Swan entered our orbit and may become visible to the naked eye. The green-tinged cosmic object with its 10 million-mile-long tail will be closest to our sun by the end of May. The sighting of this ball of ice is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as it only comes by our solar system every 11,597 years.
Mattiazo, from Australia, didn’t first spot the comment while looking through a telescope. He saw it, however, while analyzing online images posted by the Solar Wind ANisotropies (SWAN) instrument aboard the ESA/NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), ESA reported. According to scientists, the cosmic object’s official name is Comet C/2020 F8, and the possibility of its being visible without special equipment is very high.
There’s a SWAN in space. 🦢
Discovered by an instrument on the @ESA & @NASASun Solar and Heliospheric Observatory mission, comet SWAN makes its closest approach to Earth today at a distance of 53 million miles. Its closest approach to the Sun is May 27: https://t.co/EBnEq0bYwk pic.twitter.com/a8qtcdP1zf
— NASA (@NASA) May 13, 2020
C/2020 F8 was at its closest point to Earth on May 13 and, according to NASA, is now heading straight for the sun. It shall reach perihelion (its closest distance to the sun) on May 27, according to NASA.
This particular ball of ice is the 3,932nd comet that the SOHO satellite has so far discovered, said NASA. On a brightness and visibility magnitude between 1 and 5, Swan is expected to reach 4 or 3. Scientists are optimistic the object will brighten even more as it approaches the sun. “It’s extremely exciting that our sun-watching observatory has spotted so many comets since its launch in 1995,” says Bernhard Fleck, ESA SOHO project scientist, according to Daily Mail.
From mid-May onwards, anyone living in the northern hemisphere might be able to spot the spectacular cosmic object. However, according to scientists, the comet’s behavior can be hard to predict, as they become fragile as they approach the sun. “Comets can do unusual things when they get close to the sun,” explained Nick James, director of the comet section at the British Astronomical Association, according to Forbes. “We won’t really know how it performs until we actually see it go through perihelion—it could surprise us.”
According to James, there is a possibility that the photos already taken have captured the comet at its brightest. “I doubt if it will be much for the general public,” he told Forbes. “All the really spectacular images were taken when the comet was in outburst and in dark skies.”
Other factors can impact C/2020 F8’s visibility, including the time of day and moonlight. “It is true that estimates are being affected by bright skies—twilight and the Moon—but earlier predictions of magnitude 3 or brighter are now looking optimistic,” James explained.
If C/2020 F8’s visibility is not exciting enough for stargazers, though, the month of May boasts two more astronomical events in store; between May 21 and May 23, the planets Mercury and Venus will appear very near each other, according to Daily Mail.
However, if the comet indeed survives its sun-bound journey, “stargazers on Earth should look for it near the bright star Capella in the constellation of Auriga, the Charioteer,” ESA wrote. This astronomical event is “almost certainly the only time the comet will be visible in our lifetimes: estimates are not yet fully precise, but it is clear that the comet’s orbital period is measured in thousands or even millions of years,” the space agency adds.