It’s not every day, or every year for that matter, that we get to see a really bright comet. Many of us, including the author of this article, remember comet Hale-Bopp that adorned Earth’s skies in the first months of 1997. Since then we’ve had several comets bright enough to be plainly visible to the eye, for instance Ikeya-Zhang in 2002 and McNaught in 2007, though arguably none as spectacular as H-B. Indeed, there have been no new bright comets since comet Lovejoy back in 2011 (pictured).
Now, there is a serious contender for the proverbial “next bright comet”: C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS), or just ATLAS, discovered just before the New Year and steadily getting brighter since then. Though comets are notoriously difficult to predict, it is now quite possible the comet will become bright enough to rival Sirius, the brightest star in the sky – which, incidentally, can currently be seen low in the south after sunset.
Comet ATLAS currently resides in the outskirts of the constellation of Ursa Major aka the Plough. It appears as a tiny smudge of light shining at 8th magnitude, somewhat fainter than the faintest stars visible with the naked eye. It is heading towards Perseus, which it will reach in mid-May, and should then be marginally visible to the eye as an evening object in the north-west. From mid to late May, it should be possible to pick up the comet in the evening but also the morning sky; its closest approach to our planet occurs on 23 May at a distance of 70 million miles, about three quarters of the Earth’s distance from the Sun. The comet should reach maximum brightness in late May or early June and be lost in the Sun’s glare. It may, however, still be possible to make out a sufficiently long & prominent tail – provided one develops – and presenting a similar spectacle to comet Lovejoy back in 2011 in the skies Down Under.