The comet was first identified on April 11th of this year and is expected to show up at the orbit of Mercury in late May, where Comet Atlas that recently exploded was supposed to be. The space rock has started to show peculiar behavior lately, leading to hypotheses that it too could be crumbling, just like Atlas did.
Its Closest Approach is Expected This Month
Scientists in the southern hemisphere, where SWAN is visible as well, have spotted a massive blast coming from the comet, as the space rock was leaving behind a trail of debris. Karl Battams from the Naval Research Lab located in Washington, DC, explained that the comet could be currently disintegrating, or it could just be a volatile object.
He told Space Weather: “Outbursts do not necessarily imply fragmentation, and ground-based images are not yet showing evidence of a breakup. This could just be a particularly feisty and volatile comet. It would not surprise me at all to see another outburst – may be several – in the coming weeks as it closes in on the Sun later this month.”
As per monitoring data, Comet SWAN will keep making its way closer to Earth. On May 12th, the space rock is expected to be at its closest distance to our planet, at just 0.56 astronomical units (AU), which is about half the distance between the Sun and Earth.
Space Weather said: “If current trends continue, the comet will brighten to the third magnitude or better, similar to the stars of the Pleiades. Observers in the southern hemisphere will have little trouble seeing it as it glides through the constellation Pisces.”
It Started to Crumble
Comet SWAN was first spotted by Michael Mattiazzo of Swan Hill, Victoria, Australia, when he was examining data from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory’s (SOHO) SWAN instrument, hence the comet’s name.
SWAN is used to scan the Solar System for hydrogen, which implies that the comet is currently discharging massive amounts of hydrogen. Some researchers are not sure if the space rock will remain on sight until May 12th, but Battams, who correctly foreseen the destruction of Comet Atlas, stated that the scenario is unlikely.
He said: “I doubt that the comet will maintain its current impressive appearance, and will quite possibly fade away soon. But we’ve only been viewing it for a couple of days, so no one knows.”
Astronomers had hoped Comet Atlas could resist until it got sufficiently close to the Sun so it would be visible during the night just like Venus is, which resembles a bright star. Still, the most recent information collected about the comet has revealed that the cosmic object has begun to crumble already.
Researchers believed it was fragmenting because its brightness began to dim, which implied it was not as gigantic as it once was. Scientists from the Lulin One-meter Telescope in Taiwan have also confirmed it was coming apart, with one piece measuring about 2,112 miles (3,400 km) ahead of the other part.