May was the month Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) was supposed to be a great spectacle in the night sky. Alas, its close approach to the Sun led to its catastrophic fracturing, captured recently by the Hubble Space Telescope. But it appears the Solar System has provided an alternative spectacle for our viewing pleasure.
Comet C/2020 F8 (SWAN) was discovered just over a month ago and is now at the stage where it has entered the visible limit of the naked eye, although you'll need good dark skies to spot it at this point. Hopefully, it will get brighter and brighter as it gets closer to the Sun over the next month. And let’s keep our fingers crossed it doesn't break apart, like ATLAS.
The comet is currently about 100 million kilometers (62 million miles) from Earth in the constellation of Aquarius. It will continue to get closer to Earth up until May 13, with its closest passage near the Sun on May 27.
Comets are often described as dirty snowballs. They are bodies rich in ice, rocks, and dust, and when they get too close to the Sun, volatile materials evaporate. This often dramatic release of gases forms a fuzzy atmosphere around the comet (known as the coma) that can extend into a long tail.
In a gorgeous picture by Gerald Rhemann, selected by NASA for its Astronomy Picture of the Day on April 29, a glowing coma is seen and a long faint tail is well established. We’ll just have to wait and see if it becomes bright enough to put on a show.
The new comet was discovered in images taken by the SWAN camera on March 25, 2020, aboard the Solar Heliospheric Observatory.