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Comet Atlas is falling apart, new photos confirm

The Virtual Telescope Project captured this view of Comet Atlas' shattered nucleus on April 11, 2020.
The Virtual Telescope Project captured this view of Comet Atlas' shattered nucleus on April 11, 2020.
(Image: © Gianluca Masi/Virtual Telescope Project (www.virtualtelescope.eu))

It's official: Comet Atlas has broken apart.

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."

Related: Photos: Spectacular comet views from Earth and space

Masi posted online some of the photos he took, which clearly show the comet's splintered core. 

Atlas was discovered in late December 2019 by the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) in Hawaii, which explains the object's name.

Astrophotographer Ron Brecher, who's based in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, took this photo of Comet Atlas on April 10, 2020. (Image credit: Ron Brecher (astrodoc.ca))

From its detection date through mid-March, Comet Atlas ramped up dramatically, increasing in brightness by a factor of 27,500, according to Space.com skywatching columnist Joe Rao. As a result, professional and amateur astronomers alike began buzzing about its potential, some even daring to dream that Atlas might become the next great comet to brighten Earth's night skies.

But Atlas slammed on the brightness brakes on March 17, and it's now pretty clear why that happened.

Astrophotographer Chris Schur captured this view of Comet Atlas on April 9, 2020, from Payson, Arizona. "The comet appears quite diffuse now, hopefully there will be something left to see near perihelion!" Schur told Space.com via email. (Image credit: Chris Schur (http://www.schursastrophotography.com))

Such breakups are common for comets, which spend most of their lives in the frigid depths of the outer solar system and court danger whenever they get close to the sun. Indeed, Atlas itself may be the result of a previous fragmentation event; comet expert John Bortle told Rao that Atlas may be a chunk that broke off the famous comet of 1844 (which is officially designated C/1844 Y1).

Whatever Atlas' past may be, its future will not fulfill our skywatching dreams. But the next great comet is out there somewhere, and it will eventually make an appearance.

Editor's note: If you have an amazing comet photo you'd like to share for a possible story or image gallery, you can send images and comments to spacephotos@futurenet.com.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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  • rod
    Breaking up and current light-curves show Atlas grows fainter too.
    Reply
  • dfjchem721
    Well, rod, here is another one breaking up without an outburst. You remember I/2 Borisov broke off a fragment and showed a significant increase in brightness, but afterwards, when it seems to break up completely, it dims instead.

    From the article: "From its detection date through mid-March, Comet Atlas ramped up dramatically, increasing in brightness by a factor of 27,500....."

    How is it possible to expect a great show from this comet if it remains intact, and then it dims when the comet breaks up? Did it just run out of icy material for a "display", or is there much more to comets that I expected?
    Reply
  • rod
    dfjchem721, *Did it just run out of icy material for a "display", or is there much more to comets that I expected?" My answer, I do not know. Comets lose mass, and when they break up, can lose plenty too, and this could change their brightness and coma size as they approach or pass away from the Sun. Spaceweather.com shows a diminishing light-curve obtained, https://www.spaceweather.com/ It is near 10th magnitude now. When I last viewed this comet on 30-March using my 10-inch telescope, it was near 8th magnitude. Here is another recent report on the comet's break-up, https://skyandtelescope.org/astronomy-news/comet-atlas-will-it-become-a-naked-eye-object/ There are some on the forums that may like the idea that a comet could be an alien spaceship in stealth mode passing by Earth :) However, I do not subscribe to that hypothesis :) My stargazing log records 20 different comets I viewed using my telescopes over the years. I was taught when I was a young lad, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is probably a duck :)
    Reply
  • dfjchem721
    "I do not know?" The ultimate answer from a real person who can admit to not knowing it all. Very impressive! :)

    Must confess that it may have been me who started that "alien spaceship in stealth mode passing by Earth". Just for kicks of course. I do not subscribe to that hypothesis either, not even visitation. Fermi famously asked "where is everyone" regarding aliens. He was a very clever guy.

    This may be asking a bit much, but is there any compilation on the number of comets that break up and dim vs. those that break up and "light up"? Could it be something as simple as distance to the sun? It seems very puzzling.

    You certainly have more insight than any I have ever met regarding comets. Jeez, how many programs do you have regarding ducks, er, I mean comets, and which is the best?

    All these blasted questions from that guy........
    Reply
  • rod
    *that guy* (Dave), this site may help on comets, https://minorplanetcenter.net/ There is plenty of small objects in our solar system to keep track of :) A drop down list of current and past comets with breaks up recorded I do not see like the exoplanet site I use showing 4251 confirmed now, http://exoplanet.eu/ --Rod
    Reply
  • dfjchem721
    Thank you kindly for checking rod. Based on your past abilities, I never know what you might have up your sleeve, or in your top hat! :)

    Will read up on comets at wiki's link. I suspect it is a long article, but it is clearly time for me to brush up on them. My apologizes in advance if I find something to ask you about.
    Reply
  • dfjchem721
    Wiki's link offered something really wild from a rapid look:

    Exocomets. I don't think anyone ever mentioned these. I would have thought they were nuts, but they have been discovered (as I am sure rod knows):

    "Exocomets beyond the Solar System have also been detected and may be common in the Milky Way. The first exocomet system detected was around a star named Beta Pictoris, a very young sitting at around 20 million years old A-type main-sequence star, in 1987. A total of 11 such exocomet systems have been identified as of 2013, using the absorption spectrum caused by the large clouds of gas emitted by comets when passing close to their star. For ten years the Kepler Space Telescope was responsible for searching for planets and other forms outside of the solar system. The first transiting exocomets were found in February 2018 by a group consisting of professional astronomers and citizen scientists in light curves recorded by the Kepler Space Telescope. After Kepler Space Telescope retired in October 2018, a new telescope called TESS Telescope has taken over Kepler's mission. Since the launch of TESS, astronomers have discovered the transits of comets around the star Beta Pictoris using a light curve from TESS. Since TESS has taken over, astronomers have since been able to better distinguish exocomets with the spectroscopic method. New planets are detected by the white light curve method which is viewed as a symmetrical dip in the charts readings when a planet overshadows its parent star. However, after further evaluation of these light curves, it has been discovered that the asymmetrical patterns of the dips presented are caused by the tail of a comet or of hundreds of comets."

    That is really amazing! Next up will be "interstellar objects transiting distant star systems". Why not?!
    Reply
  • rod
    *that guy*, here are some reports from my home database showing sungrazing comets break up too.
    Catching a Comet Death On Camera, The comet that disappeared: What happened to Ison?, Sun-grazing comets as probes of the physics of the solar corona
    Reply
  • rod
    dfjchem721 said:
    Wiki's link offered something really wild from a rapid look:

    Exocomets. I don't think anyone ever mentioned these. I would have thought they were nuts, but they have been discovered (as I am sure rod knows):

    "Exocomets beyond the Solar System have also been detected and may be common in the Milky Way. The first exocomet system detected was around a star named Beta Pictoris, a very young sitting at around 20 million years old A-type main-sequence star, in 1987. A total of 11 such exocomet systems have been identified as of 2013, using the absorption spectrum caused by the large clouds of gas emitted by comets when passing close to their star. For ten years the Kepler Space Telescope was responsible for searching for planets and other forms outside of the solar system. The first transiting exocomets were found in February 2018 by a group consisting of professional astronomers and citizen scientists in light curves recorded by the Kepler Space Telescope. After Kepler Space Telescope retired in October 2018, a new telescope called TESS Telescope has taken over Kepler's mission. Since the launch of TESS, astronomers have discovered the transits of comets around the star Beta Pictoris using a light curve from TESS. Since TESS has taken over, astronomers have since been able to better distinguish exocomets with the spectroscopic method. New planets are detected by the white light curve method which is viewed as a symmetrical dip in the charts readings when a planet overshadows its parent star. However, after further evaluation of these light curves, it has been discovered that the asymmetrical patterns of the dips presented are caused by the tail of a comet or of hundreds of comets."

    That is really amazing! Next up will be "interstellar objects transiting distant star systems". Why not?!

    Where are the exo-Oort Clouds? :)
    Reply
  • dfjchem721
    Where are the exo-Oort Clouds? Perhaps they need to be renamed.

    Having read through the Wiki reviews on the hypothetical "Oort Cloud", the theoretical "Hills Cloud" and "Comet", it would appear they are written by different people with somewhat different views, no surprise there. But for me, the biggest surprise was the description of the Hills Cloud.

    Without being too expansive, the Hills Cloud and Comet reviews put more severe constraints on the distance of the presumed Oort Cloud's outer edge, of which the Hills Cloud is supposedly an inner part of. These distances range from 0.79 ly to 3.16 ly. Reading between the lines suggest the author of the Hills Cloud review doesn't put a lot of confidence in this farthest limit. The review on "Comet" was similar in this respect. The Oort cloud review states right off the outer limit is 3.2 ly. Clearly a difference of opinions. What is most striking in all of this is the proposed density of the Hills Cloud, and that real objects appear to have been spotted there.

    The Hills Cloud review suggests that it is likely the source of most comets, and even supplies comets to the presumed distant spherical Oort cloud. The Oort Cloud is hypothetical in that there is no direct evidence that it exists, since all comets could have arisen from a "stand alone" Hills Cloud and their trajectories modified by asymmetric out-gassing, the gas giants and the sun (etc?). The author of the Hills Cloud paper suggests that the spherical Oort Cloud is so weak and tenuous that after billions of years, it could only be maintained today by comets from the Hills Cloud. For me at least, that provides a good reason to dispense with any spherical Oort Cloud and go with Hills. Unfortunately, the extreme distance to the main body of comets in any hypothetical spherical cloud likely eliminates observational confirmation any time soon. Lacking that, it will remain hypothetical to some of us at least.

    Something else I got out of the Comet review - there are a lot of hyperbolic comets previously observed. Having never studied this, I only became aware of the feature when the two interstellar objects appeared. Since they were observed with hyperbolic trajectories, it was noted in the main stream press that this defines them as leaving the solar system and never coming back. So with my extremely limited knowledge on this subject, how can all these other comets have hyperbolic orbits and yet none are considered interstellar objects? Must have missed something somewhere. Hoping rod can fill me on this, and the below.

    One strange observation that needs to be addressed is the longevity of comet out-gassing. I might be hazy on all this data overload, but I believe it reported that short period comets last longer than long period comets. It would seem to me that the opposite would be true, but all depends on the amount of out-gassing per orbit, and the nature of the comet itself perhaps. Does your more than considerable knowledge of comets agree with this, and how could such a thing be true?
    Reply