Backyard Observatory

Scientists Have Spotted a New Bright Comet That Could Be Visible With the Naked Eye

As one comet disappears, another arrives.

Comet Swan
Comet Kohoutek, which was visible with the naked eye. | CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Comet Kohoutek, which was visible with the naked eye. | CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Just before the calendar flipped over to 2020, Comet ATLAS appeared and began to surprise astronomers by how quickly it was brightening. While cautious with projections, some scientists said ATLAS could become visible to the naked eye. That assessment was encouraged in part by it taking the same orbit as the Great Comet of 1844. Unfortunately, ATLAS has broken into pieces and won't become visible to anyone just standing in their backyard. 

However, as one comet disappointed, another arrived with the potential to provide a rare view of a comet with the naked eye. Amateur astronomer Michael Mattiazzo spotted the new comet using data from NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). It was spotted with SOHO's Solar Wind ANisotropies instrument (SWAN) even though it wasn't designed to find comets, but hydrogen.

Right now, per Universe Today, Comet SWAN is only visible south of the equator near the constellation Sculptor. As of late last week, the comet was visible with binoculars. Though, of course, the question everyone wants answered is whether it will brighten enough to be seen with the naked eye. 

As was the case with Comet ATLAS, it's hard to say. Comets are unpredictable. Additionally, like ATLAS, SWAN is a small comet.

It will make its closest pass to Earth on May 12, coming within 51.7 million miles. It'll reach its closest point to the sun, the perihelion, on May 27. If the comet continues to brighten on its current pace, it may become visible to the naked eye from May 15-23, shortly after it becomes visible to viewers in the Northern Hemisphere, per Sky and Telescope. If that happens, it'll be seen low in the west-northwest sky after sunset and low in the east-northeast sky before sunrise.

There are still a lot of questions about the comet, though, including whether its sudden brightening indicates that it will dim just as quickly. Again, there's a lot of unpredictability with comets, and it's impossible to say at this point if we'll get the opportunity to see a comet with the naked eye for the first time in a long time.

Ready to go stargazing?

Here are all the best stargazing events that you can get out and see this month or you could stay in a stream the northern lights from home. If you're just getting started, check out our guide to astronomy for beginners

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Dustin Nelson is a Senior Staff Writer at Thrillist. Follow him @dlukenelson.