A new comet that was discovered in April using data from an orbiting observatory may be visible to the naked eye in the coming weeks.
The comet was first spotted by amateur astronomer Michael Mattiazzo, who used data gathered by an instrument onboard the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) satellite.
The instrument, known as the Solar Wind Anisotropies, or SWAN, maps the constantly outflowing solar wind in interplanetary space by focusing on a wavelength of ultraviolet light emitted by hydrogen atoms.
The new comet was picked up by the instrument because it is releasing huge amounts of water, about 1.3 tons per second.
Though its official name is C/2020 F8, the comet has become known as Comet SWAN for the instrument that aided in its discovery. It is making its closest pass by Earth on Wednesday — about 85 million kilometers — and can be seen best by those in the Southern Hemisphere or the southern parts of the Northern Hemisphere.
Astronomers say residents of the Northern Hemisphere may be able to get a better view of the comet later this month when it makes its closet pass by the sun. But scientists caution the visibility of comets can be difficult to predict, especially as they get closer to the sun.
Astronomer Tony Philips told The New York Times it depends on how the comet reacts to solar heating as it approaches the sun in the next few weeks.
Comets start to disintegrate as they approach the sun, and that disintegrating material may or may not form a “tail” that helps make the object more visible.
Source: Voice of America