• Approaching comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) rapidly brightening

    A newly-discovered comet named C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) is now crossing the orbit of Mars as it makes its way toward the Sun. The object has been brightening so rapidly since its discovery on December 28, 2019, that some astronomers believe it will be visible to the naked eye by the end of May 2020. It will pass only 0.25 AU from the Sun on May 31, 2020. 

    ATLAS was named after the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System survey in Hawaii-- an astronomical early warning survey system designed to spot smaller, near-Earth objects a few days or weeks before they pass by Earth.

    The object has a similar orbit as the Great Comet of 1844, making astronomers hypothesize that ATLAS may be a fragment of the said comet.

    Since its discovery in the constellation of Ursa Major on December 28, 2019, the comet has been brightening at an almost unprecedented speed. 

    "Comet ATLAS continues to brighten much faster than expected," said Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab in Washington DC. "Some predictions for its peak brightness now border on the absurd."

    By March 17, ATLAS was magnitude +8.5 object -- more than 600 times brighter than what astronomers have anticipated. However, it is still invisible to the naked eye.



    "This comet will eventually disappear into the glare of the Sun but until then should be a good binocular and maybe soon naked-eye comet for some folks. In these days of social isolation and telework, grabbing a pair of good astronomical binoculars is something I highly recommend," Karl Battams, NRL

    A comet becomes brighter as it approaches the Sun because it burns at a more intense rate. However, it is impossible to forecast whether the object will remain intact in the course of its travel as most comets eventually burn up and dissipate.

    "Right now the comet is releasing huge amounts of its frozen volatile gases," Battams said. "That's why it's brightening so fast."

    "I'm still cautious about getting too excited, but it's holding up well at the moment," he said on March 23. "Folks predicting big negative Vmags are crazy, IMHO, but something around mag 0 is a possibility."

    ATLAS is predicted to reach its brightest by the end of May-- if the comet continues to light up at its current rate, it may become visible to the naked eye, assuming that the observer is in an area with low light pollution. At the brightest extreme, it could also be seen even during the daytime. 

    "Comet McNaught (C/2006 P1) performed that very trick 13 years ago," said Dr. Tony Phillips of the SpaceWeather.com. "On January 13, 2007, it swooped past the Sun shining at magnitude -5. The absurdly-bright comet was visible at high noon with its tail jutting across the blue sky."

    The Northern Hemisphere will be the best place to view the comet at its peak brightness. If it lives up to its potential, it could also put on a great show that has not seen since the 1997 Comet Hale-Bopp.

    Although not everyone agrees, Battams thinks that ATLAS will fade rapidly before reaching the Sun... "My personal intuition is that Comet ATLAS is over-achieving, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it start to fade rapidly and possibly even disintegrate before reaching the sun," Battams said.

  • Comet ‘Atlas’ is Bigger Than Jupiter and It's Getting Brighter

    “Comet Atlas” is getting a tail.

    Could it be that we’re about to get a bright comet, visible to the naked eye to everyone in the northern hemisphere, just as the coronavirus pandemic reaches its peak?

    Currently visible through binoculars and telescopes as it travels through the northern circumpolar constellations of Ursa Major (the Big Dipper/Plough) and Camelopardalis (the Giraffe), Comet Atlas—officially known as C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS)—appears to be getting a tail.

    Could it be the brightest comet for over 20 years?

    This new image is by Damian Peach, a noted planetary photographer from the U.K. It shows a very obvious greenish coma and tail. Comet tails are dust and gas that get illuminated by the sun as the comet gets closer. Comet coma are the nebulosity around around the nucleus of a comet that gives it a fuzzy look.

    This sequence, shot on March 30, shows Comet Atlas’ movement over five hours as it moves from one constellation to another. You can clearly see its tail as it grows brighter in the northern hemisphere’s night skies.

    Comet Atlas was featured on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day in late March 2020 as it appeared close to galaxies M81 and M82 (the Cigar Galaxy).

    Comet Atlas was discovered by the NASA-funded ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System) survey on December 28, 2019, in Hawaii. It was the last comet discovered in 2019.

    How and when to see Comet Atlas

    The trajectory of Comet Atlas is currently taking it away from the Big Dipper/Plough.It’s likely to be at its brightest and best around the end of April/beginning of May when it gets closer to the Sun (it’s at its perihelion closest-to-sun point on May 31, 2020). On April 30, 2020 it will be in the constellation of Camelopardalis and best seen just after sunset, in the western twilight sky. You can see it now with any telescope if you use this sky chart.

    When will Comet Atlas be easiest to see?

    On April 30 Comet Atlas will be relatively easy to find by first locating the bright planet Venus and bright star Capella in the constellation of Auriga. You’ll probably need binoculars... though if we all get lucky then it may be bright enough to see with your naked eyes.

    Comet Atlas is now getting so famous it ever has its own Twitter TWTR account.

    For now, Comet Atlas is still “socially distancing”—it’s currently 97,357,463 miles/156,681,650 kilometers from Earth—but it’s getting closer all the time.

  • Comet C/2020 F8 (SWAN) rapidly brightening, now visible in the Southern Hemisphere

    Approaching Comet C/2020 F8 (SWAN) has become bright enough that it is already visible to the naked eye. As of 14:30 UTC on April 30, 2020, the comet is 115 million km (71 million miles) away from Earth, with a magnitude of 6.0.

    The comet appears like a bright fuzz ball in the sky when observed with the human eye, but so much more can be revealed even with small telescopes.

    "I just came in from observing C/2020 F8 with the naked eye (on April 29)," said astronomer John Drummond from Gisborne, New Zealand. "It seems to have increased brightness dramatically since I last observed it a few nights ago."

    Drummond made a deep exposure output which highlighted jets appearing from the comet's core.

    "The tail on this is now at least 8 deg long! The best comet I've seen in some years," said astrophotographer Damian Peach who took the image below.

    Another astronomer named Gerald Rhemann captured an astonishing shot of the comet from Tivoli, Namibia. "This is a 30-minute exposure through my 12-inch Astrograph."

    C/2020 F8 was discovered on April 11 by amateur Australian astronomer Michael Mattiazzo from images taken by the Solar Wind ANisotropies (SWAN) on March 25.  

    The comet had powerful hydrogen outbursts, which may have been caused by explosions from its surface, according to Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab in Washington DC.

    "A major eruption happened to this otherwise small and faint comet, releasing a massive cloud of hydrogen-rich volatiles. SWAN is picking up on this sudden dump of hydrogen into the inner solar system," he stated.

    "The comet sort of appeared out of nowhere. What made it flare up? I worry that something unpleasant happened to it, and now it's releasing (possibly exhausting) all of its fresh volatiles."

    For now, SWAN is only visible from the Southern Hemisphere, but it is rapidly moving to the northeast and soon, it will also become visible for viewers in mid-northern latitudes, including the U.S., Europe, and southern Canada. As the comet moves closer to the horizon, it will appear considerably brighter with its tail slightly longer.

    As comets are unpredictable, it could disintegrate just like what happened to Comet ATLAS, but Battams said, "Comet SWAN seems to be holding together better than Comet ATLAS, so there's hope."

  • Powerful outburst from Comet C/2020 F8 (SWAN)

    Astronomers monitoring Comet C/2020 F8 (SWAN) spotted a powerful outburst from the comet on May 5. Such outbursts usually indicate a fragmentation, but scientists are hopeful that this could just be a volatile comet. The comet is approaching Earth and the Sun-- its closest will be on May 13 and 27, respectively.

    This week, the cometstarted turning bright enough to be visible to the naked eye and many observers in the southern hemisphere were able to see the object without the use of binoculars or telescopes.

    Around May 5, SWAN appeared to have released a huge blast from the comet's surface, leaving a trail of debris. Explosions of gas and dust as it heats up while approaching the Sun may have triggered the outburst, which is an indicator that it might be breaking apart.

    However, according to Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab in Washington, DC, outbursts do not necessarily imply fragmentation, "and ground-based images are not yet showing evidence of a breakup," noting that SWAN may just be a particularly "feisty and volatile" comet.

    via Gfycat

    Cracking and exposing veins of a volatile material is usually how fresh comets behave as they get near the Sun for the first time, and SWAN is behaving such.

    It has a hyperbolic orbit, which indicates that it has never been near the Sun before, and sunlight touching its surface for the first time may yield unpredictable results.

    "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," said Battams.

    Observers in the southern hemisphere are in for a spectacular sight as SWAN is set to make its closest approach to Earth on May 13, at around 85 million km (53 million miles) away.

    "This week, observers in the southern United States should get their first glimpse of the comet very low in the eastern sky during morning twilight as it speeds from Cetus into Pisces," said astronomer Bob King. 

    "The comet's height above the eastern horizon will vary depending on latitude, with more northerly latitudes favored from about May 20 through early June. The peak magnitude of 2.8 is expected around May 21."

    Ephemeris | Orbit Diagram | Orbital Elements | Physical Parameters ]

    More outbursts could be in the offing, said Dr. Tony Phillips of the SpaceWeather.com. Dates of special interest include May 12 when the comet passes by Earth (0.56 AU) and May 27 when the comet slingshots past the Sun not far from the orbit of Mercury (0.43 AU).

    As of May 7, SWAN is 91 million km (56 million miles) from the Earth.

    On May 27, it will reach its nearest point to the Sun or perihelion at 64 million km (40 million miles) away.

Go to top