Comet ATLAS, also known as C/2019 Y4 but nicknamed ATLAS as it was discovered by the telescope array system of the same name, will become increasingly bright as it heads towards the Sun. No one knows how big the core of the comet is, but latest observations have shown that is it heads towards the centre of the solar system, it’s atmosphere has become increasingly massive.
The comet itself is likely only a few kilometres wide, but its atmosphere has ballooned to a staggering 720,000 kilometres (447,387 miles) wide – about half as wide as the Sun.
This is because it is leaving a trail of gas and debris in its wake as it makes its way from the orbit of Mars, which it is near at the moment, past Earth and to Venus.
Website Space Weather said: “On the scale of big things in the solar system, Comet ATLAS falls somewhere between the sun (1,392,000 km diameter) and Jupiter (139,820 km).
“It’s not unusual for comets to grow so large. While their icy solid cores are typically mere kilometers in diameter, they can spew prodigious amounts of gas and dust into space, filling enormous volumes.”
By late May, it will only be 0.25 AU away from the Sun – one AU (astronomical unit) is equivalent to the distance between the Earth and the Sun – and getting closer.
When it approaches the Sun, it could become as bright as a waxing crescent Moon – the curved lunar phenomenon which is visible at the beginning and end of the Moon’s monthly cycle.
Space Weather has said: “The comet is about as bright as an 8th or 9th magnitude star.
“That’s too dim to see with the naked eye but consider this: The comet is hundreds of times brighter than astronomers predicted when it was discovered 4 months ago by the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS). And it’s still beyond the orbit of Mars.
“Estimates range from magnitude +1 to -10; in other words, somewhere between a 1st magnitude star and the waxing crescent Moon.”
However, the fate of the comet is still unclear.
Experts are unsure whether it will burn to dust or whether it will produce a spectacular display of explosions as it approaches the Sun.
Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab in Washington DC said: “ATLAS is a bit of a wildcard, and there’s a spectrum of possibilities as it nears the sun.
“At one extreme, it could simply crumble away in the coming weeks, and at the other extreme it could brighten up tremendously.
“It has an unusually small perihelion distance inside of Mercury’s orbit, which bodes well for getting those frozen gases fizzing furiously.”
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