Comet C/2020 F8 (SWAN) is a strong contender for the best and brightest comet seen this year. According to the Royal Astronomical Society, the chunk of ice, rock and frozen gases will be best seen until about mid-June. And the good news is the comet will be visible over the UK, appearing in the north-western skies.
What is Comet SWAN?
Comets are one of the many fascinating objects racing around the Sun, made up primarily of ice and dust.
Comets can be as big as a mountain or the Isle of White and their bright comas, or thin atmospheres, can be bigger than a planet.
When Comet Holmes was seen in the solar system in 2007, the cloud of gases and icy particles surrounding it grew bigger than the diameter of the Sun.
Comet SWAN was discovered this year by amateur astronomer Micahel Mattiazzo from Australia.
The comet was named after the Solar Wind Anisotropies (SWAN) camera on the Solar Heliospheric Observer (SOHO) spacecraft
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How to see Comet SWAN from the UK?
As the comet swings by the Sun, its icy layers sublimate and produce a bright coma and distinct tail.
With a bit of patience, stargazers should be able to spot these features between now and mid-June.
The Royal Astronomical Society said: “It’s fairly bright, but fading, and the best chance of seeing it in the UK is in the last week of May through early June.
“With the help of a pair of binoculars, the comet should be visible in the northwestern sky after sunset, fairly close to the horizon.
It might even be possible to see it with the naked eye alone
Dr Robert Massey, Royal Astronomical Society
You might also have a chance to spot the comet in the predawn hours.
Look to the northeast skies but keep in mind the rising sun could hinder your efforts.
Lucky stargazers might even be able to see the comet with the naked eye alone.
However, because of the comet’s low position and the bright hours of twilight, the task will not be easy.
According to Mark Armstrong of Astronomy Now, your best bet will be on a pair of 10×50 binoculars.
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If possible, look for a decent observing point with an unobstructed view of the northwest to northeast horizon
The further up north you live, the more light you will have to contend with.
On May 12, Comet SWAN made its closest pass of Earth when it came within 0.575 astronomical units or 53.4 million miles (85.6 million km).
At the time, the comet was crossing the constellation Pisces but has moved across Triangulum and entered Perseus by May 18.
Dr Robert Massey, deputy executive director of the Royal Astronomical Society, said: “With the help of a pair of binoculars, you should be able to pick it out low in the northwestern sky after sunset.
“If we’re very lucky, it might even be possible to see it with the naked eye alone.
“Some astronomers in the Southern Hemisphere have done this already.
“But as comet hunter David Levy once said, ‘Comets are like cats, they have tails and they do precisely what they want’.
“We don’t know if SWAN going to brighten or continue to fade, so we’ll have to wait and see.
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