Get Ready For Comet SWAN And Four More Fabulous Fuzzies

Comet SWAN will cruise low across the east and northeastern sky from mid to late May. Its position is shown every three mornings at around 4:30 a.m. Central Daylight Time. Use the brighter stars Algenib in the bottom of the Great Square along with Mirach and Almach in Andromeda and Mirfak in Perseus to help point the way. Somewhat fainter stars are labeled with Greek letters. In binoculars Comet SWAN will look like a small, fuzzy spot with possibly a faint tail visible. Stellarium with additions by the author

Many of us look forward to bright comets. They’re among the most beautiful objects to see in the night sky. The last truly memorable one for Northern Hemisphere skywatchers was Hale-Bopp in 1996 and 1997. All you had to do was open the front door and face the northwestern sky — it hung like a painting there for weeks. For the Southern Hemisphere it was the Great Comet of 2007, better known as Comet McNaught. But even a modest naked-eye or binocular comet is something of a rarity, the last being Comet Wirtanen which brightened to 4th magnitude in late 2018.

This spring there are four comets (and soon a fifth) bright enough to spot in a pair of 50mm binoculars from dark skies. One of them, Comet SWAN, is faintly visible without optical aid from the far southern U.S. and Southern Hemisphere. As it moves northward in the sky it’s expected to reach magnitude 3 — one level of brightness fainter than the stars of the Big Dipper — around May 21-25. Keep in mind however that all comets are subject to change and have a way of defying predictions. But assuming it follows the “rules” it should first become visible to most U.S. and Canadian observers around May 18 when it will appear very low in the morning sky below the Square of Pegasus.

Continuous changes in the structure of Comet SWAN’s ion tail are seen in this animation made on May 1st. Gerald Rhemann

Finding it then won’t be particularly easy because the comet will stand only about 5° high around 3:45 to 4 a.m. from the central U.S.  That’s equal to the amount of sky covered by three fingers held together at arm’s length. Dawn complicates matters. At the same time the comet the sky will slowly brighten. To make sure you don’t miss it you’ll need to be out at just the right time. For many locations that’s between about 3:30 and 4 a.m. Make sure your observing site has a wide-open vista as far down to the east-northeast horizon as possible.

Binoculars will also be essential. While this fuzzy visitor is officially naked-eye brightness it will appear fainter because it’s low in the sky. When we look along the horizontal we see through the thickest, dustiest part of the atmosphere which absorbs light and makes otherwise bright objects, even the moon, appear fainter compared to when they’re higher up.

This map depicts the comet’s evening apparition from 40°N latitude (central U.S.) The bright stars Capella and Mirfak will help point the way. Positions are marked every three nights at 10:30 p.m. CDT. Stellarium with additions by the author

I’ll start looking as soon as May 18, but if you’re no friend to waking up at dawn you can wait until May 22 and observe Comet SWAN in the evening. While the comet will continue to “take the low road” across the northern sky we’ll have the opportunity to see it in complete darkness. Again, bring binoculars to best appreciate the fragile, frozen object with its delicate tail pointing nearly straight up. Once you spot in the binoculars, lower the glass and see if it’s also visible with the naked eye.

On May 4, 2020 Comet SWAN displayed an incredibly long, blue-hued ion tail. An ion tail is formed primarily of carbon monoxide that glows blue in ultraviolet light emitted by the sun. Comets also have yellowish dust tails made of fine grains of dust that reflect sunlight. Gerald Rhemann

Yet another bright, low-lying, 3rd magnitude comet will appear in the dawn sky in mid-July called NEOWISE (C/2020 F3). It’s named for NASA’s orbiting Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer telescope (NEOWISE) which discovered the object in late March. It rapidly brightened in April and should put on a nice show right about the time mosquitos are most voracious. Sorry, just an attempt at humor. I’ll have more to say about the NEOWISE comet next month.

Three comets ply the northern sky in May. All are visible currently in binoculars. Stars are shown to about magnitude 7 and the comets’ paths are drawn from May 10-15 around 10:30 p.m. Central Time. Look for the comets during that time along each line. Stellarium with additions by the author

Binocular and telescope observers have more than just SWAN to sate their comet cravings. Comet ATLAS (C/2019 Y4) which broke apart last month and began to fade recently experienced an outburst in brightness to about magnitude 8 and may now visible in binoculars under a dark sky. Add in Comet ATLAS (C/2019 Y1) — also around magnitude 8.5 — and Comet PANSTARRS (C/2017 T2) at 8 and wow, that’s a lot of binocular comets! Of course,  a telescope will work better on these three but give them a try in your glass.

Of course, I hope you get to see them all including SWAN which will be swimming your way very soon!

9 Responses

  1. BCstargazer

    I’ll try to snap a pic if it makes it abov my eastern mountain ridge…I haven’t spotted Aries yet the past couple of mornings but it’s real close.
    What would be awesome is Hyakutake (1996) type to show up..Discovered less than 60 days before closest approach and missing Earth by a cosmic hair…
    But I’m convinced that a handful of comets will make memories between now and 2061 🙂

    1. astrobob

      Me too. Lots of opportunities between now and then. Don’t worry about Aries too much. If you can see Triangulum you’re there. I’m thinking I should SWAN rise over the flat horizon of Lake Superior by the 18th give or take a day.

      1. BCstargazer

        Thanks for the tip Bob
        Looking at the diagram I just need to ‘flatten the curve” a little more…
        We’ll get there 😀

  2. Edward M Boll

    With Swan fading now to magnitude 6 or so, and Atlas brightening possibly past 8, I am not so sure now which one will be the brighter one at Perihelion.

  3. Edward M Boll

    Someone observed Y4 with 10 power binoculars today. I think that’s the first time since March.

  4. Edward M Boll

    Swan continues fading apparently. No report in the last 20 observations of comets. In fact the last one was from Y4 which is getting quite low itself observed in large binoculars at 30 power.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Edward,
      SWAN seems stalled at 5.5 – 5.8. Y4 looked amazing in my 15-inch scope last night. Beautiful tail, brighter head and preceded by additional pieces.

  5. AstroGirl

    Can you please make a celestial events calendar and where and when you can see stuff? Also, can you see Comet SWAN from Singapore?

    1. astrobob

      Hi AstroGirl,

      That’s a good idea. I like doing day-to-day so I can provide more details and graphics but I might consider a condensed weekly calendar. Thanks for the suggestion. As for the comet, no. It is too far north and below your horizon.

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