Twitter | @NASADailyImage, Damian Peach

Comet Swan To Be Visible With Naked Eye In Once-In-A-Lifetime Event

The cosmos is jam-packed with wonders, and for the most part, if you have access to a telescope, you can more or less figure out where to find whatever you want to look at on a given night, whether it's a galaxy or a nebula or a planet. But comets don't come along every day, let alone comets that you don't even need a telescope to see.

That's what's happening in the night sky right now, and for this particular comet, it's a once-in-a-lifetime event.

That we even knew Comet Swan was coming was only due to an amateur astronomer.

Michael Mattiazzo of Australia spotted Comet Swan using data and images from the ESA's Solar Wind ANisotropies instrument at the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory back in April.

Combing through images that document changes in solar wind in ultraviolet light in the solar system, Mattiazzo noticed a cloud of hydrogen in the outer solar system, the tell-tale sign of a comet.

Amazingly, Comet Swan is the eighth comet Mattiazzo has discovered this way. However, Comet Swan is not quite like any of those other comets.

At first, the excitement of a new comet was largely contained to astronomy circles.

NASA | Gerald Rhemann

Astronomer Gerald Rhemann captured the first image of Comet Swan on April 29, taken from his telescope set up in the Namibian desert.

Showing a brilliant green cloud around the comet's core and a massive, 10 million mile-long tail, it soon became clear that the comet was ejecting material quickly, which means that the show gets better for those of us on the ground the closer the comet gets to the sun.

By now, Comet Swan has already passed as close to Earth as it ever will.

That came on May 12. But its proximity to the sun, not Earth, is what makes it so bright.

Not every comet will become bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, but Comet Swan's show is just picking up. It will pass closest to the sun on May 27.

Most comets never get bright enough to be seen with the naked eye.

If you want to catch a glimpse, check out the morning twilight near the eastern horizon. Or, in more precise terms, "star gazers on Earth should look for it near the bright star Capella in the constellation of Auriga, the Charioteer," the ESA said.

But take the opportunity while it's there.

Because Comet Swan may not survive its encounter with the sun. The last comet to pass our way, Comet ATLAS, broke up into more than 30 fragments when it got too close to the sun back in April.

But even if it does survive, Comet Swan won't come around again in our lifetimes. "This is almost certainly the only time the comet will be visible in our lifetimes: estimates are not yet fully precise, but it is clear that the comet’s orbital period is measured in thousands or even millions of years."

h/t: ESA

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