ATLAS comet will soon grace our skies!

ATLAS comet will soon grace our skies – make sure to think of a good wish!

Comet Atlas - Martin Gembec

Comet Atlas, photo by Martin Gembec, WikiMedia Commons. File license is Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Think well on your wish

…it could be the brightest comet in the past 20 years. It’s name is Atlas, and it’s a comet – heading hard our way, with expected peak of brightness to take place in April and May. Still not much is known about the object. It seems to have been getting its tail developed for some time (Hoffman Lab 209; Harvard University), as it moves closer to the Sun, and its icy surface drops off, leaving a trail of light-reflecting particles that gives comets their spectacular shape. Right now, it’s visible in the constellation Camelopardalis with binoculars or a telescope.

Remember my article about Budget Astronomy? I recommend the read, there is not much to do on quarantine anyway!

What we currently know is that C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) orbits at high eccentricity, which is a fancy word meaning orbit is as different from a circle as possible, resembling an ellipse or even a parabolic flyby. It means this might be the only chance to see this comet. We do not know about its shape, material (although water ice should be assumed), and mass, although…

“Comet FIVE times the size of Jupiter is set to light up the night skies in April – and it could be brighter than Venus” –

Ah, DailyMail. The website address says “TWICE” (with capital letters), and site contect says “FIVE TIMES” (again with capital letters)? None of that information has any credible source. So, let’s focus on what we do know for sure.

Halley’s Comet, 6th of June 1910. License: Public Domain. Source

A comet is basically a space rock composed primarily of water ice with impurities. As it moves closer to the Sun, the star’s energy heat that ice up, which then breaks off the comet, giving it a characteristic tail, or tails. Ice reflects the Sun’s light, which is why comets have been bright on the night sky – and therefore have had a cultural meaning.

Comets in culture

Not going too deep into this, I will just report after Wikipedia entry that cites Oxford Dictionary that the name came from Greek κομήτης (koh-MEH-tehs) which meant “wearing long hair”.

For a long time, comets have been said to foretell bad events, to be bad omens. We can read an extract from “A Comet Called Halley” (Ian Ridpath, Cambridge University Press, 1985) online at “From a Chinese tomb of 168 BC, archaeologists have uncovered a set of paintings on silk which amount to an identification guide to various forms of comet tails and the events they were said to foreshadow, including wars, famine, and death.” If one is to believe other commentary on the subject, they were believed to be such bearers of bad news up until the 16th century, although the Star of Betlehem or Christmas Star, sometimes depicted as a comet, could be a notable exception, foretelling the best possible news to any Christians. At least from the point of view of culture.

Computer typography has a Unicode symbol for a comet, which is jargon for having a separate “letter” just for this purpose. That symbol is ☄.

Press reports

The Times in their “Comet of a generation set to light up the night sky” cite Daniel Brown at Nottingham Trent University, stating that it is a very promising comet and could look “stunning” by the end of April. Forbes in their “A Bright Comet With A Tail Could Adorn Twilight Just As The Coronavirus Epidemic Peaks” ask themselves a question: “Could it be the brightest comet for over 20 years?”. Meanwhile, EarthSky informs in “How to see bright Comet ATLAS” that it should come bright enough to see with binoculars, and might be visible with naked eye. Although, they also state the following:

“Just know that comets are notoriously erratic and inherently unpredictable! We will have to wait to see how Comet Atlas performs.” – EarthSky

We will wait and see, then, and hopefully we will have a bit of joy in current times.

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