Comet Tsuchinshan–ATLAS Could Light Up the Night Sky in 2024

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By Lydia Amazouz Published on May 22, 2024 08:00
Comet Tsuchinshan–atlas Could Light Up The Night Sky In 2024

Astronomers and skywatchers around the world are eagerly anticipating the potential appearance of Comet C/2023 A3 (Tsuchinshan–ATLAS), which might become one of the brightest comets visible to the naked eye in the fall of 2024.

This comet, discovered by the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) and observed by the Purple Mountain Observatory in China, could offer a spectacular celestial show, comparable to some of the most famous comets in history.

Discovery and Characteristics of the Comet

C/2023 A3 (Tsuchinshan–ATLAS) was first identified by ATLAS in South Africa on February 22, 2023. Initially mistaken for an asteroid, further observations confirmed it as a comet. The comet was first spotted far beyond the orbit of Jupiter, approximately 680 million miles from the Sun.

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On September 27, 2024, Tsuchinshan–ATLAS will make its closest approach to the Sun, coming within 36 million miles, a distance comparable to Mercury’s orbit. Following this, it will pass closest to Earth on October 12, 2024, at a distance of 44 million miles.

Potential Visibility

If the predictions hold true, Tsuchinshan–ATLAS could brighten significantly, potentially reaching a magnitude comparable to Venus, making it easily visible to the naked eye. During mid-October, it could present a striking sight in the western evening sky, possibly displaying a prominent tail. This would provide a rare opportunity for both amateur and professional astronomers to observe a bright comet without the need for telescopes or binoculars.

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Comparison to Previous Comets

The excitement surrounding Tsuchinshan–ATLAS stems from its potential to be much brighter and easier to see than recent comets. For instance, Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) and Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks were relatively faint and required ideal conditions to view. In contrast, Tsuchinshan–ATLAS could provide a more accessible spectacle. Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF), also known as the "Great Green Comet," and Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks, known for its sudden flare-ups and horn-like gaseous appendages, drew significant attention but ultimately disappointed many casual observers due to their faint visibility.

Risks of Disappointment

Despite the optimistic projections, there are no guarantees that Tsuchinshan–ATLAS will live up to the hype. The comet has an orbital eccentricity suggesting it is a "first-timer" from the Oort Cloud, a distant region of icy bodies that surrounds the solar system. Comets from the Oort Cloud often have volatile materials that can cause temporary brightness surges far from the Sun but may fade as they get closer. Many such comets have historically underperformed, losing brightness as they near the inner solar system. This phenomenon is similar to a marathon runner "hitting the wall," where initial speed is not maintained throughout the journey.

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Factors Influencing Brightness

A critical factor that could enhance Tsuchinshan–ATLAS's brightness is the phenomenon of forward scattering of sunlight. This occurs when the comet is almost directly between the Sun and Earth, causing dust particles to scatter sunlight forward, potentially increasing brightness dramatically. This effect has made past comets like Comet Skjellerup–Maristany and Comet McNaught unexpectedly brilliant.

Comet Skjellerup–Maristany (C/1927 X1) became very bright in December 1927 due to forward scattering of light, allowing it to be seen during daylight. Similarly, Comet McNaught (C/2006 P1), also known as the Great Comet of 2007, was the brightest comet in over 40 years and was easily visible to the naked eye in the Southern Hemisphere. These examples provide hope that Tsuchinshan–ATLAS might also achieve remarkable brightness, especially around October 8, 2024, when it will be positioned favorably for forward scattering.

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Observing Opportunities

While those in the Northern Hemisphere might not have the best viewing opportunities until mid-October, observers in the Southern Hemisphere, particularly in locations like Australia, New Zealand, and South America, will be able to monitor the comet’s progress throughout the summer. Reports from these regions will provide valuable insights into the comet’s potential performance.

Historical Context of Comet Observations

Throughout history, comets have fascinated humanity, often seen as omens or portents. The predictable return of Halley's Comet, the dramatic appearance of the Great Comet of 1811, and the stunning display of Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997 have all left lasting impressions. Modern advancements in astronomy have allowed for more precise predictions and observations, making the potential appearance of Tsuchinshan–ATLAS an exciting event for both scientists and the general public.

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