Comet SWAN Succumbs Plus It’s Time To WISE Up

A robin dashes across a snowy yard in Lakewood Township Wednesday morning in search of open ground. Photo: Bob King

This robin dashed across the cold snow before finally reaching open ground to hunt for worms. That’s more than I can say for Comet SWAN. It made a mad dash toward the sun yesterday afternoon but never made it out the other side. Unlike December’s Comet Lovejoy, it failed to brighten in the final hours before its demise and today is little more than vapor and memory.

Take a look for yourself at this 10-hour movie compressed into 7 seconds. Notice that when the comet first appears at lower left, its head is bright and getting brighter but then quickly fades. We’re most likely seeing the SWAN’s sudden break up and vaporization as it plunges closer to the solar furnace. The coronal mass ejection (CME) seen at the end of the movie is not related to the comet but caused by yet another flare from departing sunspot group 1429, the seat of so much excitement last week.

A mosaic view of the entire sky in infrared light composed of more than 18,000 images from the WISE mission. The most obvious feature is long band of the Milky Way across the center. Click photo to see an annotated version. Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech/WISE team

NASA just released an atlas of the entire sky taken in infrared light by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer Mission (WISE). WISE took more than 2.7 million images of a half a billion galaxies, stars, asteroids and comets. Many of the objects – mostly stars and galaxies – have never been seen before, either because they’re intrinsically faint in visible light or hidden by dust. Dust in space absorbs regular light but is mostly transparent to infrared light. WISE took its pictures in four different “colors” or wavelengths of infrared.

A new class of faint dwarf stars and an asteroid called a “Trojan” that shares Earth’s orbit were just a couple of WISE’s discoveries. The probe also confirmed that we’ve discovered more than 90 percent of the largest, most dangerous near-Earth asteroids. In all, some 560 million objects were recorded by the mission, a data bank so rich it’s sure to lead to numerous new discoveries as scientists download and click away. If you’d like to learn  more about WISE, take a look at the mission page, and if data digging is your thing, click HERE.

The auroral oval, which indicates the extent of the northern lights, is shown for 3:30 p.m. CDT today. You can see that northern Russia, Scandinavia, Scotland and Iceland are "under" the oval and likely experiencing auroras. Click image to see the current oval. Credit: NOAA

One last update – the Kp index, which can be a good indicator of possible auroras, has shot up to “6” this afternoon. If that holds into the evening, skywatchers in the northern states and Canada may have a shot seeing the northern lights. Stay tuned for more if a display looks imminent.

Update: 11 p.m. CDT. No aurora visible yet from Duluth, Minn.

19 Responses



    1. astrobob

      Hi Michael,
      Congrats on finding Garradd. The other night I got to see in a 15-inch scope from a very dark sky and the dust tail was over a degree long and very thick. Too bad about SWAN. We’ll sit tight – no doubt other sungrazers are on their way right now.

  2. Pallavi

    Hi Bob,

    The kp index now shows a 5.. I live in the twin cities its 6.00 pm..should i drive north now or wait

    1. astrobob

      I would wait. I’ll be checking the sky when it gets dark around 8:30 p.m. and will update the blog with news. No telling for sure if the activity will continue. If we do get a nice aurora, you won’t have to come all the way up to Duluth. A little north of Hinckley would probably be fine.

  3. Pallavi

    Thank you!!! Really appreciate your reply!! Thanks for your updates and your prompt replies…fingers crossed for tonight..hope we have a show!!

  4. Edward M. Boll

    I have been waiting this afternoon for another shocking surprise. A sudden leap out of the Sun of this comet. I am not surprised it fizzled, perhaps a mere whisp of it survived. Is there any chance we could see a faint tail of the remains? I do not have an orbit but it looks to me like the ephemeris would be similar to that of Lovejoy.

    1. astrobob

      You’re right that the orbit is similar, but I’ve been checking photos and have yet to see anything emerge, tail or otherwise.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Mary,
      It’s not looking good at the moment (10:30 p.m.). Activity has dropped off since the afternoon. Maybe later?

  5. Shane L

    We were treated to a nice show while we were having a fire on the beach up in Silver Bay tonight. The lake was calm so you could even catch the brighter strands reflecting in the water. My first aurora sighting if ya can believe that 😀

    1. astrobob

      Yes, believe it or not, there is also a chance for aurora tonight. I’ll have more details in today’s blog.

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