A newly discovered comet known as C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) is making its way toward our sun and is rapidly increasing in brightness.
Astronomers spotted the comet on December 28, 2019, using the ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System) robotic astronomical survey system in Hawaii, hence the name.
At that point—when the object was around 273 million miles away from the sun—ATLAS was about 398,000 times dimmer than stars that are just about visible with the naked eye, Space magazine reported.
But after it was discovered, scientists observed it growing in brightness at an incredibly fast rate. It went from a magnitude of +17 in February to +8 in March—a 4,000-fold increase in brightness, Science X reported.
It is now possible to see the comet—which recently crossed the orbit of Mars—using amateur astronomy equipment, given that it has about the same brightness as an eighth-magnitude star. By March 17, it was more than 600 times brighter than experts had predicted, Space magazine reported.
If the comet continues to grow in brightness at its current rate, it may even be visible to the naked—assuming you are in an area with low light pollution—by the beginning of May.
Like other comets, ATLAS is becoming brighter as it approaches the sun because it is being blasted with increasing amounts of radiation from the star, causing it to shed large quantities of material.
"Right now the comet is releasing huge amounts of its frozen volatile gases," Karl Battams from the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C., told SpaceWeatherArchive. "That's why it's brightening so fast."
According to EarthSky, the comet will make its closest approach to the sun on May 31, 2020 when the object will come within 23,517,819 miles of our star—closer than the average orbit of Mercury (around 36 million miles.)
During this close approach, the brightness of the comet will be expected to peak, and experts estimate that it could reach anywhere between +2 to -6 in magnitude, which could potentially make it as bright as the planet Venus in the night sky.
However, it is important to note that the behavior of comets is notoriously unpredictable. The rate at which ATLAS has been brightening has decreased slightly in recent days. Furthermore, we don't currently know whether or not the comet will remain intact given that many of these objects simply burn up completely as they fly past the sun.
"We should expect the rate of increase to slow again," Carl Hergenrother, an Arizona-based comet observer, told Space magazine. "This is where it gets tricky for predicting just how bright it will get."
"It's going to be fun the next few weeks watching Comet ATLAS develop—and provide a nice distraction from the current state of the world," Hergenrother said. "Here's to good health and clear skies!"
NASA data indicates that the comet takes just over 6,000 years to make one full circle around our star. It appears that ATLAS has a very similar orbit to that of the Great Comet of 1844, indicating that it could be a fragment of this object.
If ATLAS does turn out to appear as bright as some estimates are predicting, it could rival the last spectacularly bright comet to pass by Earth—the Comet Hale-Bopp, which flew past our planet in 1997.