Space enthusiasts have been keeping a keen eye on Comet ATLAS this year as it made its way through the solar system. 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 confirmed that it is falling apart, bringing an end to its voyage.
It had been hoped 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, recent observations revealed that it has begun to fragment.
Astronomers believed it was crumbling apart as its brightness began to dip, which suggested it was not as big as first thought.
Now, astronomical photographers Jose De Queiroz and Michael Deyerler of the Mirasteilas Observatory, Switzerland, have snapped a stunning image of two pieces of the comet racing towards the Sun.
Website Space Weather said: “Amateur astronomers taking a close look at the comet’s core are seeing two nearly identical fragments racing toward the Sun.”
Mr Deyerler said: “We used the observatory’s 90cm remote-controlled telescope with an SBIG STL-11000 camera.
“We have been monitoring the comet with this large public telescope since early April.”
Their images show the beginning of ATLAS’s breakup on April 1, followed by increasing fragmentation on April 11, 14, and 15.
Astronomers now believe the comet is running out of gas, and will soon completely disintegrate into nothingness.
Space Weather said: “The disintegrating nucleus seems to be exhausting its stores of gas and dust very rapidly and, indeed, the comet may not survive much longer.”
However, a new comet has been discovered which is due to make its way by Earth’s orbit and the inner planets of Mercury and Venus.
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Comet SWAN (C/2020 F8) was discovered on April 11 which, like ATLAS was meant to, will arrive at the orbit of Mercury in late May.
The comet was first discovered by Michael Mattiazzo of Swan Hill, Victoria, Australia, when he was analysing data from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory’s (SOHO) SWAN instrument – hence the name.
SWAN’s job is to scan the solar system for hydrogen, so for it to see the comet suggests Comet SWAN is currently emitting a lot of hydrogen at the moment.
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