Hubble photographs break-up of Comet ATLAS

The break-up of Comet ATLAS
For the full images go to April 20 and April 23.

Cool image time! Scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope have captured the break-up of Comet ATLAS over a period of several days. The two images to the right, cropped and annotated to post here, were taken on April 20th and April 23rd respectively.

Hubble identified about 30 fragments on April 20, and 25 pieces on April 23. They are all enveloped in a sunlight-swept tail of cometary dust. “Their appearance changes substantially between the two days, so much so that it’s quite difficult to connect the dots,” said David Jewitt, professor of planetary science and astronomy at UCLA, Los Angeles, California, leader of one of two teams who photographed the doomed comet with Hubble. “I don’t know whether this is because the individual pieces are flashing on and off as they reflect sunlight, acting like twinkling lights on a Christmas tree, or because different fragments appear on different days.”

That there are fewer pieces in the later image could also be because the smaller fragments had crumbled even more during the three days between photos, and thus were simply too small to see any longer.

Confirmed: Comet ATLAS has broken apart

Astronomers have now confirmed the fact that Comet ATLAS has broken into several pieces, and will not put on a spectacular sky show this coming May.

Just a month ago, it looked like the icy wanderer, officially known as C/2019 Y4 Atlas, might put on a dazzling sky show around the time of its closest approach to the sun, or perihelion, which occurs on May 31.

But relatively lackluster behavior soon dimmed such hopes. And optimism surrounding the comet is now pretty much extinguished, for it’s no longer in one piece. Comet Atlas “has shattered both its and our hearts,” astrophysicist Gianluca Masi, the founder and director of the Virtual Telescope Project in Italy, said in an emailed statement on Sunday (April 12). “Its nucleus disintegrated, and last night I could see three, possibly four main fragments.”

A nice picture of the break-up can be seen here.

We are due for another great comet, like Comet Hale-Bopp in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, Comet ATLAS won’t be that comet.

Comet C/2019 ATLAS brightening

Comet ATLAS, discovered in 2019 by a telescopic survey looking for near Earth asteroids, is brightening more than expected as it approaches the Sun, and could by May be visible to the naked eye.

Jonathan Shanklin, Director of the British Astronomical Association’s Comet Section, reports that the current comet, C/2019 Y4, brightened quite rapidly in mid February, and adds “as of March 11 there is no sign of a slowdown in the rate of brightening. It is already visible in large binoculars . . . The uncertainty in brightness at the time of perihelion is large, though the worst case indicator is 2nd magnitude. It will remain well placed for UK observers into May and could become a prominent object.”

If 2nd magnitude is the dimmest they presently expect, this comet will be one of the brightest objects in the sky come May. Stay tuned!