Backyard Observatory

A Bright Comet Is Approaching Earth. Here's How You Can See It Now.

Comet ATLAS, first spotted in December, is brightening rapidly.

comet atlas 2020
NASA/Tiffany Clements

Like the ominous opening of Game of Thrones, a comet may be visible with the naked eye in late April and early May. It's even possible that it could get bright enough that it's visible at twilight while the sun is still up. Though, at present, it's unclear just how bright the comet will become. 

The comet has been named ATLAS, after The ATLAS Project, an astronomical survey in Hawaii focused on asteroids, which first detected it. Though the team behind project is hunting for asteroids and is funded by the NASA Planetary Defense Coordination Office, it has identified many comets, including this new one, which is also referred to as C/2019 Y4. For now, Comet ATLAS is visible through telescopes and high-powered binoculars. However, it could become bright enough to be seen with the naked eye later in April and May.

"[In a telescope] or slightly high-powered binoculars, you could pick it out," Henry Weiland, systems engineer for the ATLAS observatory, told Thrillist. "It’s a little tougher in binoculars, though. I’ve heard some people are having a little bit of trouble in smaller binoculars." That is expected to change as the comet gets closer to Earth.

How was Comet ATLAS discovered?

The comet was first spotted by The ATLAS Project on December 28, 2019. However, it was very faint. At that time, it didn't appear it would get as bright as many projections now expect it to become.

That changed in the weeks after the discovery, as the comet became orders of magnitude brighter. "One of the more interesting things about this comet, as more and more [observations] came in, was that it was discovered it had an orbital period very, very similar to [the Great Comet of 1844]," Weiland said. "It’s conceivable that it’s a fragment of that comet or both those comets are fragments of another larger comet. But those two do seem to be closely related."

The parallels with The Great Comet of 1844 are another indication of just what a special sight Comet ATLAS could become.

Comet Atlas 2020 how to see
The Atlas Project's Maunaloa site, where Comet ATLAS was discovered in December. | Courtesy of The ATLAS Project

How bright can Comet ATLAS become?

Space.com notes that by the time ATLAS hits its closest point to the sun, called the perihelion, it could "rival the planet Venus or even the full moon in brilliance." That point will be just 0.25 astronomical units (AU) from the sun. Though, that level of brilliance may be more of an outside chance than the most likely outcome. The wildly rapid brightening of the comet has recently slowed, according to many observers. 

"Comets are very peculiar," said Larry Denneau, Co-PI and senior software engineer at the observatory, when reached by Thrillist. "They’re basically a big ball of ice that has come from the outer solar system thousands of years ago and has made its way in. The reason why astronomers are excited, from a PR point of view, is that this 0.25 AU distance from the sun, which is within the orbit of Mercury, means this thing is gonna heat up. All the volatile molecules that have been buried under the ice are all going to start sublimating or turning into gas. That’s when these things can become really, really bright."

That's exciting. However, Denneau, who submitted the discovery of the comet, warns it's too early to get overly excited about that possibility. "This thing could turn out to be completely spectacular and just put on a show for a couple of months," he said. "Or it could be like Comet ISON, which was supposed to be spectacular, as bright as the full moon. It got so close to the sun that it was wiped out immediately. So, we don’t know. It’s hard to make predictions. The current projections show it brightening greater than the models might indicate and that’s great, but these things are really fussy. It’s dangerous to make grandiose predictions about them."

How to see Comet ATLAS

Through April 10, a supermoon -- the brightest we'll see in 2020 -- is going to cause some interference for anyone trying to spot the comet. Nonetheless, it's currently visible through a telescope or binoculars. You'll need to look toward the constellation Camelopardalis in the north-northwest sky, close to Ursa Minor.

Later in April and into May, it's expected to continue to get brighter to the point where you could see it with the naked eye. "In May, when it’s going to be the brightest, it’ll be close to Taurus," says Denneau. 

Seiichi Yoshida, a comet expert in Japan, says that the comet may become faintly visible to the naked eye by the end of April or beginning of May. During the last week of May, when it reaches its perihelion, may be its brightest moment. 

However, all the hedging is warranted. Comets are unpredictable. In the best-case scenario, the comet will be visible around twilight at some point in May. It could also disappoint and never become visible to the naked eye. You'll just have to keep looking and waiting to see what happens with Comet ATLAS. Though, if you've got a telescope, you can start to get a good glimpse of it already. 

UPDATE:
While things look very good for a while, scientists did warn not to get too excited because comets are unpredictable. That turns out to have been good advice. Observers have confirmed that Comet ATLAS has begun to break up.

The comet is now in multiple pieces, with people observing it splintered into three or possibly even four separate parts. It's not uncommon behavior for a comet that spend that vast majority of its life in the cold reaches of space before approaching a massive heat source like the sun. 

We'll just have to keep waiting for the next big comet event to come another time.

Ready to go stargazing?

Here are all the best stargazing events that you can get out and see this month or you could stay in a stream the northern lights from home. If you're just getting started, check out our guide to astronomy for beginners

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Dustin Nelson is a Senior Staff Writer at Thrillist. Follow him @dlukenelson.