Image: The comet Swan
NASA/SOHO
This image from a video by NASA's SOHO sun-watching spacecraft shows comet Swan (lower center left, with tail) as it approached the sun on March 13 and 14, 2012. The so-called sungrazer comet is not expected to survive its sun encounter.
By
updated 3/14/2012 7:23:42 PM ET 2012-03-14T23:23:42

Just three months after one comet made a seemingly death-defying plunge through the sun, another icy wanderer is set to try its own luck in a solar rendezvous.

The newly discovered comet Swan is on a collision course with our star, and it should plummet through the solar atmosphere sometime late Wednesday, researchers say. Swan's dive follows shortly after that of comet Lovejoy, which shocked astronomers by emerging from behind the sun on Dec. 15, 2011, stripped of its tail but otherwise intact.

The odds are against such a happy ending for comet Swan, however.

"I'm as sure as I was with Lovejoy," said Karl Battams, a solar scientist at the U.S. Naval Research Center in Washington, playfully referring to his — and pretty much every other expert's — prediction of Lovejoy's demise.

"I guess my official opinion is that survival is unlikely," Battams, who runs the website Sungrazing Comets, told SPACE.com via email.

Swan was discovered March 8 by comet hunters scouring images taken by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft operated by NASA and the European Space Agency. The comet takes its still-informal name from SOHO's Solar Wind Anisotropies, or SWAN, instrument.

Like Lovejoy, comet Swan is what's known as a Kreutz sungrazer comet. All Kreutz sungrazers — so called because their orbits bring them close to the sun — are believed to be the remains of one giant comet that broke apart several centuries ago. They're named after the 19th century German astronomer Heinrich Kreutz, who first demonstrated that such comets are related.

While comets dive into the sun on a regular basis, Lovejoy was something special, and not just for its remarkable survival.

First of all, astronomers discovered the icy wanderer in late November, so they had several weeks to prepare for and document its astonishing solar close encounter. Further, Lovejoy was incredibly luminous, the brightest sungrazer ever observed by SOHO. At its peak, it blazed roughly as brightly as the planet Venus.

That's a tough act for Swan to follow, and chances are the comet won't quite measure up when it takes the plunge. But even if we're about to see the last of Swan, the comet should still go out in a blaze of glory, researchers say.

"I think it will be the second brightest Kreutz-group comet seen since the 1970s," Battams wrote on Sungrazing Comets March 12.

You can follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter:@michaeldwall. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter@Spacedotcomand onFacebook.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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