At the end of this month, we might witness a giant comet, Atlas! Atlas is expected to appear in the skies around 29 to 30 April, and to come so close to the Earth that it will be visible to the naked eye.
On the 18th of March, Michael Jäger captured it (C/2019 Y4 ATLAS), and managed to reveal the bright green hue surrounding it, a result of diatomic carbon, C2.
The comet was discovered in December, and the gaseous pocket around it extended in diameter to an amazing 447,387 miles!
On the 28th of December, one needed a telescope to spot it, but over time, it becomes brighter and can be seen with binoculars. From the images of the Austrian photographer, its tail is the similar size of its atmosphere.
Yet, Atlas does not threaten our planet, even at its nearest to us- a mere 72 million miles away!
The name of the comet is actually an acronym of the system that discovered it, the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert system, a robotic astronomical survey and early warning system based in Hawaii.
Since it was initially spotted, its brightness has increased 4 000-fold, so experts estimated that we would be able to see it with the naked eye by the end of this month.
Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab in Washington DC explained:
“Right now the comet is releasing huge amounts of its frozen volatiles (gases), that’s why it is brightening so fast. As they get closer to the sun they gas off this material and we get this amazing display. It’s already at a level of brightness that you can see through binoculars — this beautiful greenish halo around it and a bit of development of the tail. ”
According to astronomer Matthijs Burgmeijer, if the comet keeps getting brighter as estimated, it will be most spectacular comet ever known. Yet, he added that “comets are notoriously unpredictable.”
Daniel Brown, an astronomy expert at Nottingham Trent University, stated that it is “promising”, and by the end of this month, it “ could look really, really stunning.”
However, as comets are particularly volatile, no one can predict what will happen as it develops over the next few weeks.
Comets need to preserve the ice to survive long enough so we can see them from Earth. They need to have a big nucleus with a store of frozen gas, and if this is not the case, they ‘run out of gas’ and eventually disappear on their way to the Sun.
Many experts believe that Atlas will break up prior to reaching the brightest point from Earth.
Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab in Washington DC maintains that it is ‘over-achieving’ and it is likely to fade rapidly and disintegrate before reaching the Sun.
Well-known comet expert John Bortle claims that ATLAS is a significant piece broken off the comet of 1844:
“What is approaching the sun now, is a modest-size piece of cometary ice and dust with a large freshly exposed portion of surface; one that’s never seen the sun, such that it reacts to sunlight similar in the manner of an Oort Cloud comet like Comet Kohoutek did back in ’73. Intrinsically it is probably several magnitudes fainter than we currently assume it to be and may, or may not, be large enough to survive perihelion passage.”
Judging by photos taken on April 2nd and April 5th, astronomers Quanzhi Ye (University of Maryland) and Qicheng Zhang (Caltech), claim that the appearance of the core or pseudo-nucleus of Atlas has changed from starlike and compact to elongated and fuzzy.
They added that the change is “consistent with a sudden decline or cessation of dust production, as would be expected from a major disruption of the nucleus.”
This discovery was confirmed by the team of astronomers led by I. A. Steele (Liverpool John Moores University). Therefore, the optics are currently not looking good, but the comet might have lost just a small fragment.
If Atlas manages to last, when darkness falls, it could potentially be seen by the naked eye from the North-Northwest sky.
Carl Hergenrother, an Arizona-based comet observer, wrote:
“It’s going to be fun the next few weeks watching Comet ATLAS develop (and provide a nice distraction from the current state of the world). Here’s to good health and clear skies!”
So, we are now left to wait and see!