Just before 2019 became 2020, a team of astronomers in Hawaii discovered a new comet. Named Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS), the comet could only be seen through the lens of a telescope. This is not uncommon as there are lots of cool goodies floating around space that can only be seen with help of magnification. The discovery of the comet alone isn’t necessarily big news. It’s what Comet ATLAS has been doing over the last few weeks that becomes a more intriguing story.
Think of a comet as a big dusty snowball. As Comet ATLAS races closer to the sun, it starts heating up. Huge amounts of frozen gases start spewing from the comet, which in turn increases it’s brightness. The more gas & junk burning off, the more it glows. Comet ATLAS has pleasantly surprised skywatchers over the last week with how quickly it’s brightness has ramped up. While it still cannot be seen with the naked eye, it’s current curve is encouraging. As ATLAS makes it’s closest approach to the sun on May 31, all eyes will be on how bright it may or may not be able to get.
That’s the thing with comets…no one knows exactly how they’re going to react to the radiation bombardment from the sun. Sometimes, they explode in brightness. Other times, the radiation is too much and the comet cannot survive the brush with our super hot star. Which path will ATLAS follow? It’s anyone’s guess, but some of those guesses are certainly exciting. There are predictions out there that suggest ATLAS could surge to -6 in magnitude, which could make it about as bright as Venus in the night sky. That would be quite a show as most everyone will easily be able to see it with no visual help required.
BOTTOM LINE: You can’t see ATLAS without help right now. But as we get into April and May, there is a path in which this comet becomes visible to the naked eye. Not only would you see a bright core of light, but very likely the dusty tail trailing from the comet itself. Should this reach naked eye visibility, it’s a sight to see and very much worth your time finding in the night sky. Kids, in particular, will never forget it. We’ll keep you posted.
Chief Meteorologist Eric Snitil