comet swan may 2020
© Christian Gloor
This image of Comet Swan was taken in Indonesia on May 1.
This week, Comet Swan will make a brief appearance in the evening sky. This comet put on a nice show for stargazers in the Southern Hemisphere over the past few weeks. Now it is far enough north for us to see it, but it will be a challenge to view.

Michael Mattiazzo, an Australian amateur astronomer, was the first to spot the comet in images from the Solar Wind ANisotropies (SWAN) instrument aboard the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a joint ESA/NASA spacecraft.

As the comet moved northward and closer to the sun last month, it heated up and began to produce a lot of gas, which made for some pretty pictures. The comet's tail was particular impressive. Some observers reported seeing a tail 8 degrees long (or about 480 nautical miles).

I think most northern stargazers began to get a little excited about Comet Swan, especially since Comet Atlas was such a disappointment. That comet's nucleus broke apart in mid-April and subsequently faded drastically. Comet Swan began to surge in brightness last month, and some observers were able to see it with the naked eye. We were hoping that it would become fairly bright as it approached Earth and the sun.

However, as many comet watchers have noted, comets have minds of their own, and you can never be sure of what they will do. At the beginning of May, the outburst of activity subsided, and over the past week its brightness has been a bit of a roller coaster. As of this writing, the comet has faded to 6th magnitude, which is still decent but not as bright as we had anticipated.
comet swan location map
From May 25 through June 2, Comet Swan will be in the northwest sky. Its altitude will increase from 11 degrees to 14 degrees. It will be near the bright star Capella on June 1 and 2.
It will be a challenge to find the comet as it will be low in the sky. This week it will be emerging after sunset. To look for the comet, face the northwest. The comet will be leaving the constellation Perseus and headed toward Auriga and the bright star Capella. You can start looking around 9 p.m., but be aware that it will still be twilight. At that time, the comet will only be 11 degrees above the northwest horizon. If you watch carefully, you may spot the comet as it sinks in the sky and the sky gets darker. A pair of binoculars will really help here.

Be aware that the comet may appear only as a fuzzy little spot of light. The comet and its tail won't look as spectacular as it does in processed images (such as the one shown at the beginning of the article). This comet does not seem dusty, so the tail may not be visible at all. Remember that cameras and digital processing bring out a lot of details and color that you can't see with your eyes.

If you have trouble spotting it now, over the next several days its altitude will increase a little each day. The comet will be closest to the sun on May 27. Keep in mind that bright moonlight will start to interfere after first quarter on May 29.

A good opportunity to see the comet before it starts sinking back down toward the horizon is when it is near the bright star Capella on June 1 and 2. The gibbous moon will be in the sky, but the comet will be about 14 degrees above the horizon.

The comet is getting closer to the sun, so we can hope for another sudden increase in brightness, but it looks like our long wait for a truly bright comet isn't over yet.

Kevin D. Conod is the planetarium manager and astronomer at The Newark Museum of Art's Dreyfuss Planetarium. For updates on the night sky, call the Newark Skyline at (973) 596-6529. For the latest stargazing and space news, check out the weekly astronomy column on The Newark Museum of Art's Facebook page.