Comet SWAN

In a couple of weeks a comet called Comet SWAN (full name Comet C/2020 F8 (SWAN) ) will be visible in the northern hemisphere. It’s currently a naked eye object on view in the southern hemisphere, and giving amateur astronomers and sky-watchers quite a treat with its bright head and long, thin tail, and up here in the north we are all hoping that it doesn’t fizzle or fall apart before it climbs up into our sky!

However, there is already a lot of rubbish being talked about the comet – how bright it will be in the sky, how amazing it will look, etc. It won’t be long before the usual suspects at the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Daily Mirror and elsewhere – who, despite being asked many times by astronomers not to,  now deliberately hype-up every meteor shower, every Full Moon and every asteroid fly-by with such giddy excitement it’s quite ridiculous – start clacking away on their keyboards writing features breathlessly telling their readers how it will “light up the sky!”, “streak across the sky!” and worse. In fact, comets seem to be one of the favourite subjects for these “reporters” to write nonsense about, and their pieces are usually illustrated with ridiculous artwork. On the top here is how they usually show comets, and on the bottom is how most comets actually look – and that’s through binoculars or a telescope, because most comets don’t become bright enough to see with the naked eye, and never develop a tail either…


So, with all that in mind here are the facts about Comet SWAN…

comet swan

So, yes, Comet SWAN is on its way to the northern sky, but no, we don’t expect it to be a spectacular sight, and unless it has a tremendous burst of sustained activity there’s a good chance that its low elevation in the bright summer twilight will make it hard for people in the northern hemisphere to see. But that doesn’t mean you should not try to see it! Even if it doesn’t become a “Great Comet”, like Hale-Bopp did in the late 1990s, Comet SWAN could still be a pretty sight in the sky. It might even grow a tail long enough to be seen with the naked eye. We’ll just have to wait and see. Even if we need a pair of binoculars to see it it will still be well worth looking for and following as it tracks across the sky from mid-May to mid-June.

If you want to know when and where you will actually be able to see the comet, I’ve written about it for the Society for Popular Astronomy here: Comet SWAN

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