Comet Swan: Nasa and ESA spot comet flying towards Earth that could be visible with naked eye

Discovery was made by amateur astronomer using satellite intended to study the Sun

Andrew Griffin
Thursday 14 May 2020 15:59 BST
Halley's Comet in 1986
Halley's Comet in 1986 (Getty Images)

A comet could be visible with the naked eye as it flies past Earth soon.

The object, known as Comet Swan, was discovered by an instrument floating in space: Nasa and the European Space Agency's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO, satellite.

As it gets closer, the comet should be visible in the Southern Hemisphere just before sunrise, without any equipment. Comets rare enough to be seen without needing to use a telescope are rare,

The show could be seen in the coming weeks, becoming most clearly visible at the end of May and beginning of June.

Comet Swan came closest to Earth on 13 May, when it will swing by around 53 million miles away. It will then carry on to get closer to the Sun on 27 May, before sailing back off through the solar system.

The behaviour of comets is notoriously difficult to predict, especially as they fly closer to the Sun. Just weeks ago, starwatchers had been hoping to get a glimpse of the comet Atlas as it headed past Earth – but it broke up on its way, leaving a series of impressive if somewhat tragic photos.

As comets get nearer to the Sun, and the temperature gets hotter, they tend to heat up and start shedding material in a dust trail that can be visible in images. The ice, dust and rock that makes up a comet can then break up or become more visible, and it is difficult to know how any given object will behave in the circumstances.

The Comet Swan was first spotted last month, by an amateur astronomer called Michael Mattiazzo. He saw it in data from an instrument on the SOHO satellite called Solar Wind Anisotropies or Swan, which gives the object its name.

The new comet could be seen through the instrument because it is throwing out large amounts of water. Some 1.3 tons of water are released from the object each second, and the hydrogen and oxygen that makes up those trails is also visible to the instrument on the SOHO satellite.

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