For a little diversion during these difficult times, look to the sky. There’s a new celestial body that just might become visible to the naked eye in another month. It is the Comet Atlas, officially named Comet C.2019 Y4.
According to Eddie Irizarry in the EarthSky on-line news, the comet was initially discovered on December 28, 2019 by astronomers in Hawaii. By mid-March it shined at about the brightness of an 8th-magnitude star. On the magnitude scale, the brightest stars are 1st-magnitude, while those we can barely see with the naked eye are a 6th-magnitude. The dimmer the star, the higher the magnitude number.
Comet Atlas is getting closer and could soon become visible using binoculars. It could get to a magnitude of 5 by early May. That is theoretically bright enough to be seen with the naked eye. According to Irizarry’s article, estimates of Comet Atlas’s peak brightness range from +2 to -6. On the other hand, it could break apart and fizzle into the darkness.
“Just know that comets are notoriously erratic and inherently unpredictable,” Irizarry said in his article. “We will have to wait to see how Comet Atlas performs.”
Many likely remember the Hale-Bopp Comet that was clearly visible to the naked eye for a number of months back in 1997. It shone brighter than magnitude 0 for two months. That set a record, dubbing it the “Great Comet” of 1997.
Comet Atlas won’t be nearly the show of Hale-Bopp but still worthy of noting as it increases in brightness. In early April, look to the north sky and find the Big Dipper. From there, Comet Atlas will be to the southwest and north of the bright star Polaris.
Comets move. By the middle of May it becomes increasingly closer to the northwest horizon. By then it might be bright enough to be easily seen with small binoculars, or perhaps even with the unaided eye. For charts on just where to look as it moves across the night sky, check the EarthSky website (earthsky.org).
Of course, a dark sky is needed to see Comet Atlas even at its brightest. That darkness lights up early next week by the moon.
The full moon on April 7 is a supermoon. In fact, this one is a super supermoon. A supermoon is when a new or full moon occurs when the moon is also closest to the earth in its orbit.
All full moons have names, and the one for April is the Pink Moon, Grass Moon or Egg Moon. This full moon is also the closest to the earth, and thereby the largest, of any full moon of the year.
The moon will appear plenty full for the next few evenings, but it reaches its full phase on the evening of April 7 at precisely 8:36 p.m. That is the exact time when the moon is 180 degrees opposite the sun.
As for the planets in April, Venus is at its brightest as the evening “star.” It blazes mightily in the western sky just after sunset. In early April it is in close conjunction with the Pleiades star cluster. It vanishes below the horizon about four hours after sunset.
In the morning there is a cluster string of visible planets with Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. Jupiter, the second brightest planet, rises in the east about three and a half hours before the sun in early April. It rises earlier as the month goes on and it becomes more prominent through April.
Saturn is the middle planet in the string of the three bright morning planets. Look first for bright Jupiter and then Saturn is a short hop to the east – in the direction of sunrise. Mars is at the bottom in this short string of planets. While difficult to see with the coming sunrise, continuing down to the horizon, Mercury just peaks out before the coming day washes it from view.
Bright planets, a supermoon and even a comet – look to the skies through these difficult times for a bit of nighttime entertainment.