It’s been a roller coaster ride trying to keep up with the status of Comet ATLAS (also known as C/2019 Y4) over the past few months. It was first spotted by astronomers back in December of 2019 and it quickly brightened up in such a dramatic way that experts were predicting that it could have been as bright as the moon when making its closest approach to the sun on May 31st and stargazers were quite excited for this upcoming sky show. Unfortunately for those who were looking forward to catching a glimpse of the comet passing by Earth, it was recently reported that it was breaking apart.
But don’t get too upset as another comet is expected to make an appearance next month. Coincidentally, on the exact same day that Comet ATLAS broke into several pieces (on April 11th), amateur astronomer Michael Mattiazzo was studying data from NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) when he noticed a new comet.
SOHO’s Solar Wind ANisotropies instrument (SWAN) is used to study hydrogen in the solar system. However, since the comet was expelling a large amount of hydrogen by emitting water ice, it was picked up by the instrument and detected by Mattiazzo.
Comet SWAN’s orbital elements were uploaded into an orbital simulator and based on that information, it’s been suggested that it travels around the sun every 25 million years, meaning that the last time it made an appearance around here was during the period of the Oligocene Epoch.
As of right now, the comet is located in the Sculptor constellation in the Southern Hemisphere. So far, it has a brightness factor of a +7.8 magnitude which means that it could be visible with a decent pair of binoculars. And if it continues to get brighter, it could possibly reach third magnitude during the last week of May, meaning that it could be seen with the naked eye. A picture of the comet can be seen here.
It will fly by Earth on May 12th at a distance of 51.8 million miles from us and it will make its closest approach to the sun on May 27th. Those of us who are living in the Northern Hemisphere should be able to catch a glimpse of it right after sunset in the very low portion of the west-northwest sky, as well as just before sunrise in the very low part of the east-northeast sky.
Since Comet SWAN showed up quite suddenly, it may just be going through a flare-up of brightness and there’s a possibility that it could start dimming or even break apart. We have to keep this in mind as there was a lot of excitement over Comet ATLAS only for it to break apart, so we will have to keep our fingers crossed that the same thing doesn’t happen to Comet SWAN.