Comet ATLAS 2020: Comet Y4 breaking up as it approaches the Sun

Comet ATLAS, also known as C/2019 Y4 but nicknamed ATLAS as it was discovered by the telescope array system of the same name, was first discovered on March 5, 2019, and stunned the astronomy community as it was heading directly towards the Sun. After more than a year’s worth of travelling, the comet has only just made its way past Mars, but astronomers have discovered that it is falling apart.

It had been hoped that the icy comet would hold out until it got close enough to the Sun that it would be as visible in the night sky as Venus, which looks like a bright star.

However, the latest observations have revealed that it appears to be falling apart.

Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab in Washington DC said: “It’s possible that this is the beginning of the end.

“The comet’s orbit is now being influenced by ‘non-gravitational’ forces. These forces are the result of gases lifting off the comet nucleus and causing the nucleus to move very slightly in the opposite direction–sort of like a jet engine.

“Most active comets experience this to some degree, but ATLAS’s non-gravitational forces have kicked in very abruptly and are quite strong.

“This supports a narrative of a small nucleus being pushed very strongly by extreme outgassing, possibly along with fragmentation.”

“Finally, let’s not forget that ATLAS is a fragment of a larger (unidentified) comet also related to the Great Comet of 1844.

“Fragmenting is a family trait for these guys.”

However, Mr Battams states that this might not be the end for ATLAS, and experts will not fully understand its fate until it has happened.

He said: “The frustrating thing about comets is we often don’t know exactly what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. There’s still a chance that Comet ATLAS is just ‘taking a breather’ before another outburst.

“But I wouldn’t count on it.”

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, if it makes it that far.

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.

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