Comet SWAN to enter Milky Way after 25 million years

As comet Atlas, which was first spotted last December and was expected to evolve into first bright comet visible through the naked eye in a decade disintegrates; the pre-historic visitor is expected to take its place

By   |  Suyash Maddila  |  Published: 22nd Apr 2020  10:19 pmUpdated: 23rd Apr 2020  12:53 am
Amazing image of Comet C/2020 F8 (SWAN) on April 18th by Damien Peach.

Hyderabad: As the Earth has come to a virtual standstill due to the threat of a deadly virus, it seems the heaven above has gone into overdrive. And as the northern sky witnesses the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower this week, there are many more marvelous celestial events that are expected to take place in the months and weeks to come.

On April 11, Michael Mattiazzo, an amateur astronomer from Swan Hill, Victoria in Australia stumbled upon a new comet named comet SWAN, as he was carefully going through NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) data. Mattiazzo has also been credited for the discovery of eight comets since 2004. The comet is, however, named after SOHO’s Solar Wind ANisotropies instrument, and also called (SWAN), which captured the image of the comet. Although the SWAN instrument was designed to survey the solar system for Hydrogen, it was able to take the images of the comet, as it was leaving a trail of a huge amount of hydrogen in the form of ice water.

SWAN
The evolution of fragmentation of comet ATLAS between April 6 and 14. –Photo: Gianluca Masi and Nick Haigh

On the same day, comet ATLAS (also known as C/2019 Y4), which was discovered on December 28, last year and was expected to be visible to the naked eyes with many predicting that the comet may equal the brilliance of Venus or the full moon at its closest point to the Earth, started to disintegrate into three fragments and started to fade. The comet earlier showed signs of evolving into a first bright comet visible through naked eye in a decade.

 

An article published in space.com last week suggests that comet SWAN is travelling in a very elongated ellipse and takes around 25 million years to complete its orbit around the sun. It also suggested that the last time the comet passed through the inner solar system was around the “Oligocene Epoch, when Paraceratherium, a genus of hornless rhinoceros and one of the largest terrestrial mammals, was walking the Earth”.

However, the question remains: Will comet SWAN evolve into big bright ball of fire visible through the naked eye or will it disintegrate and fade like the ATLAS. And although comets are quite unpredictable in nature, there is an emerging consensus among astronomers that comet SWAN can continue to grow brighter, enough to be visible to unaided eyes.

According to the space.com article, the comet will be nearest to the Earth on May 12 at a distance of 83.3 million kilometers, and on May 27 the comet will be at its closest point to the sun (called perihelion), which will be around 64.4 million km away from our star. Moreover, if the comet continues to brighten at the current rate, it will be at its brightest (third magnitude) during the final week of May and could be visible to the naked eye in the Northern Hemisphere. During this period, comet SWAN would appear very low in west-northwest sky after sunset and very low in the east-northeast sky before sunrise. Currently, the comet is accessible only to those who are south of the equator and is located in the faint constellation of Sculptor.

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