A New Sungrazing Comet May Brighten in the Evening Sky, Here’s How to See It

A newly-discovered comet may soon become bright enough to see from a sky near you. Originally dubbed SOHO-2875, it was spotted in photos taken by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) earlier this week. Astronomer Karl Battams, who maintains the Sungrazer Project website, originally thought this little comet would dissipate after its close brush with the Sun. To his surprise, it outperformed expectations and may survive long enough to see in the evening sky.

SOHO-2875 seen in a second, wide-field coronograph called LASCO C2 at 2:42 a.m. today Feb. 20. It's already moved a good distance to the west-southwest of the Sun and still displays a short tail. Credit: NASA/ESA
C/2015 D1 (SOHO) seen in a second, wide-field coronograph called LASCO C3 at 2:42 a.m. Feb. 20. Since then it’s well to the east of the Sun into the evening sky. Credit: NASA/ESA

Most sungrazing comets discovered by SOHO are members of the Kreutz family, a group of icy fragments left over from the breakup of a single much larger comet centuries ago. We know they’re all family by their similar orbits. The newcomer, SOHO’s 2,875th comet discovery, is a “non-group” comet or one that’s unrelated to the Kreutz family or any other comet club for that matter. According to Battams these mavericks appear several times a year. As of today (Feb. 24) its official name is C/2015 D1 (SOHO).

Composite of Comet SOHO-2875 crossing the C2 coronagraph field yesterday. Credit: NASA/ESA/Barbara Thompson
Composite of Comet SOHO-2875 crossing the C2 coronagraph field Feb. 19. Credit: NASA/ESA/Barbara Thompson

What’s unusual about #2,875 is how bright it is. At least for now, it appears to have survived the Sun’s heat and gravitational tides and is turning around to the east headed for the evening sky. Before it left SOHO’s field of view on Feb. 21, the comet was still around magnitude +4-4.5.

No one can say for sure whether it has what it takes to hang on, so don’t get your hopes up just yet. Battams and others carefully calculated the comet’s changing position in the SOHO images and sent the data off to the Minor Planet Center, which today published an orbit.

Newly-named Comet C/2015 D1 (SOHO) will share the sky with Venus and Mars at dusk. For the next few nights it will be quite low and nearly impossible to see. Its situation improves over time as the comet moves rapidly northward into Pegasus and Andromeda. Tick marks show the comet's position each evening. Stars are shown to magnitude +6.5. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
Newly-named Comet C/2015 D1 (SOHO) will share the sky with Venus and Mars at dusk. For the next few nights it will be quite low and nearly impossible to see. Its situation improves over time as the comet moves rapidly northward into Pegasus and Andromeda. Tick marks show the comet’s position each evening. Stars are shown to magnitude +6.5. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Based on this preliminary orbit, I’ve plotted SOHO-2875’s path for the next couple weeks as it tracks up through Pisces and Pegasus during the early evening hours. Given that it’s probably no brighter than magnitude +6 at the moment and very low in the west at dusk, it may still be swamped in twilight’s glow.

Barring an unexpected outburst, there’s no question that the comet will fade in the coming days as its distance from both the Earth and Sun increase. Right now it’s 79 million miles from us and 28 million miles from the Sun. That puts it about 8 million miles closer to the Sun than the planet Mercury.

Comet SOHO-2875 survived its close passage of the Sun and may make an appearance in the evening sky soon. This photo montage was made using the coronagraph (Sun-blocking device) on SOHO. Click to watch a movie of the comet. Credit: NASA/ESA
Comet SOHO-2875 survived its close passage of the Sun and may make an appearance in the evening sky soon. This photo montage was made using the coronagraph (Sun-blocking device) on SOHO. Click to watch a movie of the comet. Credit: NASA/ESA

I drew up the chart for about 75 minutes after sunset in late twilight. Keep in mind that since the comet’s positions were determined via spacecraft imagery, which isn’t as precise as photographing it from ground observatories, its orbit is preliminary. That means it may not be on the precise path shown on the map. Be sure you search up-down and right-left of the plotted locations.

It’s also very possible the comet is in the process of disintegration after perihelion passage, so it may not be a dense, compact object but rather a diffuse cloud of glowing dust. Will it go the way of Comet ISON and fade away to nothing? Who knows? I sure don’t but can’t wait to find out what it’s up to the next clear night.

BTW, if you’ve got a software program that downloads orbital elements for comets to create your own charts, you’ll find the numbers you need in today’s Minor Planet Circular. Be sure to use the “post-perihelion” elements that predict the comet’s location from here on out.

So Long, SWAN…

Remember that newly-discovered comet we mentioned a couple of days ago?  Well, it’s gone. Poof. Into the Sun and never to return, it was a sungrazer’s final voyage.

The video above features images from the SOHO spacecraft and description from Bad Astronomer Phil Plait, with music by Kevin MacLeod.

Alas, poor SWAN… at least we knew him.

Read more about the history of Comet SWAN on the Sungrazing Comets site. Video credit: NASA/SOHO (and thanks to Phil Plait for the assembly.)

A New Comet’s SWAN Dive Into the Sun

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A new comet has been discovered by the SOHO team, and it — like Lovejoy before it, almost three months to the day — is headed directly toward the Sun. Discovered by SOHO’s SWAN instrument, the comet has been dubbed Comet SWAN… making this a real swan dive (or, perhaps more appropriately, its swan song.)

The animation above has a lot of random noise in it from recent solar outbursts… can you spot the comet? If not, read on…

Labeled frame of the LASCO image (courtesy of SpaceWeather.com)

There’s Comet SWAN, just above the darker silhouette of the bar that holds the shielding disk over the center of the imager (which blocks the glare from the Sun itself.)

The comet is likely another member of the Kreutz family of comets, an extended family of pieces that broke off a larger comet several hundred years ago (which itself may have been a survivor of a breakup in 371 B.C.!) Comet Lovejoy was also a Kretuz sungrazer but it was considerably larger and brighter, which may have helped it survive its Dec. 15 solar close encounter to re-emerge on the opposite side, surprising astronomers everywhere!

Read how some scientists think Comet Lovejoy held itself together.

SWAN may not be so lucky… but then again, we’ve been surprised before!

The comet will make perihelion — its closest approach to the Sun — on March 14. Stay tuned for more details!

Images via SpaceWeather.com.