A comet discovered by a man in regional Victoria is being closely watched by amateur astronomers around the world, with many hoping they’ll get to see it with the naked eye.

Key points:

  • Michael Mattiazzo has discovered eight comets since 2004 with the SWAN satellite by checking data from NASA
  • The best time of day to spot the comet is between 5:00am and 5:30am in the eastern sky
  • Mr Mattiazzo discovered Comet SWAN during COVID-19 restrictions, which is visible with binoculars and becoming brighter

Swan Hill amateur astronomer, Michael Mattiazzo, has discovered eight comets since 2004 and made his latest find during some time off work.

“Normally I work in the pathology industry, but it’s taken a bit of a downturn since the COVID-19 situation,” he said.

“It’s given me a bit of spare time, so I’ve taken up some annual leave and made the most of my hobby.”

Michael Mattiazzo has discovered eight comets since 2004.(Supplied: Michael Mattiazzo)

The recently-discovered Comet SWAN was not expected to become a great comet with a large tail, but the director of the comet and meteor section at the Astronomical Society of Victoria, Con Stoitsis, said it was still a significant discovery.

“Bright comets — really bright comets — are quite rare, but bright-ish comets happen maybe once every couple of years,” he said.

“We haven’t had one of those [bright-ish comets] for a while, and this one’s had promising signs from day dot it was going to be reasonably bright.”

The best time to view the comet is between 5:00am and 5:30am in the east of the sky, but because the comet is moving quickly that may change soon.

On average, only one comet a decade will become bright enough to significantly stand out without binoculars or a telescope.

‘There’s a great story behind it’

Mr Mattiazzo has discovery credits for eight SWAN comets, found by regularly checking data from NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory over the years.

Because he discovered the comets by looking at images from the SWAN satellite, rather than using his own telescope to look at the sky, none are named “Comet MATTIAZZO”.

Con Stoitsis@vivstoitsis

Another beautiful image of Comet C/2020 F8 Swan by Australian amateur Justin Tilbrook this morning.

“A true comet hunter will spend hundreds and hundreds of hours searching and maybe finding nothing,” Mr Mattiazzo said.

“You’ve got to be really really lucky.”

He said Comet SWAN was becoming far brighter than he expected when he first discovered it.

“Comet observing is always fun, they’re always fun to watch and follow, they can surprise you, they can disappoint you,” he said.

“They’re like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.”

Comet with ‘great story’ visible from Australian skies

Joe Rao, an associate lecturer at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, said amateur astronomers in the Northern Hemisphere were also eagerly watching Mr Mattiazzo’s discovery to see what happened.

Halley’s Comet, which last appeared in 1986, is arguably the most famous great comet.(NASA: W Liller)

Around the time Mr Mattiazzo discovered Comet SWAN on April 11, a different comet, Comet ATLAS, that amateurs were hoping would become bright started breaking into smaller pieces.

“When [Comet ATLAS] finally gets closest to the sun on May 30, it may not even be a comet anymore — it may just be a bunch of small tiny fragments — so it’s not that much to write home about,” Mr Rao said.

“Sadly, comets are very much like people … there is no such thing as an average comet.”

Mr Rao said there were hopes Comet SWAN could take its place.

“Everybody’s saying, ‘Well, Comet ATLAS wasn’t all that great but maybe we can expect something nice from Comet SWAN’,” he said.

Naked eye Comet C/2020 F8 Swan from Canary Islands. Courtesy Frank A Rodriguez

Even though Comet SWAN might not become a “spectacular comet” to the naked eye, Mr Stoitsis said it was “something different” people may not see again.

“You’ve got to keep in mind you’re looking at something historical, something you probably won’t see again, and something not many people have seen,” he said.

“There’s a great story behind it, so I definitely recommend people go and try and have a look.”