Possible superstar comet Atlas looks like it’s breaking up already

It could shine brighter than any comet in years, but it has to survive the next few weeks first.

c2019-y4-atlas-pw17
Comet AtlasVirtual Telescope Project

Comet Atlas has the potential to put on one of the best shows by a melting space snowball in years, but there’s some early indications that it might be breaking up early and cruising towards a spectacular fizzling instead. 

In a note shared via The Astronomer’s Telegram Monday, astronomers Quanzhi Ye from the University of Maryland and Qicheng Zhang of Caltech report that Comet C/2019 Y4, or Atlas, may be falling apart. 

“We report the possible disintegration of comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS),” they wrote. “Images taken on (April 5) showed an elongated pseudo-nucleus… as would be expected from a major disruption of the nucleus.”

Or as astrophysicist Karl Battams from the Naval Research Laboratory and NASA’s Sungrazing Comets Project summed it up on Twitter: “an elongated nucleus isn’t a great sign.”

Atlas is named for the sky survey that first discovered it back on Dec. 28. The comet went through a period of rapid brightening in March that excited some skywatchers, with hopes it might eventually become as bright as Venus and perhaps even possible to observe in daylight. 

But comets are famously erratic and hard to predict. As they approach the sun, heat and radiation from our star can inflict serious damage, sending promising cosmic ice clods into early oblivion. 

These latest observations indicate that Atlas is a little less likely to show off its fantastically gassy plumage next month as hoped, but Battams says it’s still too early to predict its demise as well. 

“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,” he told Spaceweather.com. “But I wouldn’t count on it.”