A very bright little comet will either sizzle into vapor or safely make it around the sun today and re-appear in the night sky. On March 8, Ukrainian amateur astronomer Vladimir Bezugly reported the comet on pictures taken by the wide-field imager called SWAN (Solar Wind ANisotropy) aboard the Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). For a comet to show up in SWAN’s low-resolution, all-sky view, it has to be bright.
Late yesterday, Comet SWAN moved into pictures taken by another instrument called the LASCO C3 coronagraph on SOHO. You can clearly see the comet’s bright head and short tail.
SWAN belongs to a very special family of comets. It’s a Kreutz sungrazer, one of about 1900 pieces so far observed of a much larger comet that broke up long ago. That means it’s directly related to Comet Lovejoy, the last bright sungrazer. You might recall that most astronomers didn’t think Lovejoy would survive its superheated graze with the sun last December. Not only did it hold itself together but went on to regrow its tail and become a spectacular sight for southern hemisphere skywatchers at Christmastime.
Video of Comet SWAN March 13-14. Notice how rapidly it moves in such a short time. That’s because the comet’s very close to the sun and strongly pulled by the sun’s gravity, the same reason Mercury orbits much faster than the Earth.
Comet SWAN is not expected to rival Lovejoy, but it will still be a standout among sungrazers. Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab in Washington DC predicts it will shine at magnitude -1 or about as bright as Mars is now. Lovejoy peaked at -4 or nearly equal to Venus. Keep in mind that the comet cannot be seen today or tomorrow, because it’s too close to the sun and lost in its glare. Only a space-based observatory with a blocking disk (coronagraph) like SOHO’s can see it.
The question is whether this new sungrazer can take the heat. We should get an answer later today or tomorrow. You can watch Comet SWAN’s progress by checking the latest C3 SOHO photos HERE and clicking on the blue LASCO C3 photo in the lower right hand corner of the page. You can also visit Karl Battam’s Sungrazing Comets blog for more information. Click HERE to see a cool movie taken by the STEREO-B observatory of the comet getting hit by a coronal mass ejection on March 12.
I hope Jupiter and Venus were as awe-inspiring in your sky last night as they were in ours. What is it about two bright lights in the heavens that exert such a powerful attraction? I was observing from a dirt road in the country. A poor-man’s observatory if there ever was. Everything else was snowed in leaving me no other choice. That was OK, because the road had a puddle and that puddle mirrored the conjunction of the planets in a beautiful way.
Before signing off, just another heads-up on the aurora. Sunspot group 1429 blasted off another large flare yesterday as a parting gesture before it rotates around the sun’s other side. Though not squarely directed at Earth, some of the solar plasma spewed is forecast to arrive at Earth later tonight through tomorrow morning March 15. Forecasters say it could start around 1:30 a.m. CDT plus or minus 7 hours. Once again, keep an eye on the Kp index and check the northern sky tonight. There’s no moon, so we’re in good shape if the northern lights take off.