The Doom of Comet Atlas: Will It Affect the Solar Wind of Earth on its Demise?

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Carmina Joy in Bizzare

11 June 2020, 06:48 GMT


Comet Atlas has been spied hurling through the inner solar system in an incredible animation captured by NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory A (STEREO-A). The rare cosmic vista of the inner solar system also includes the planet Mercury and some solar weather in addition to Comet Atlas.



The Demise of Comet Atlas

STEREO-A's location was a perfect vantage point to catch sight of Comet Atlas that threw stargazers into a frenzy last month. Astronomers first observed the object at the end of 2019, and soon identified it as a comet new to Earth's cosmic neighborhood.

Amateur astronomers had high hopes Comet Atlas would grow incredibly bright and put on a good show as it approached the Sun. Unfortunately, the comet started to disintegrate in April, to the consternation of sky watchers.

From STEREO-A's viewpoint, however, the comet's pieces remained close enough to each other to give the impression of a complete hunk of ice. And it is Comet Atlas that streaks across the new animation from top to bottom.

The animation is a compilation of NASA images shot between May 25 and June 1. Near the end of the loop, Mercury crosses into view from the left side of the image. You can see the planet drift across the background of stars.

NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory A launched in 2006 with its now-silent twin to study the Sun. The probes remit is to study the Sun from angles invisible from Earth.

How It Affects the Solar Winds of the Earth?

The spacecraft is approximately one-sixth of an orbit ahead of Earth, hence the A in the spacecraft's name. The star is invisible off-screen to the left in the new animation.

The pale haze gusting in from the left of the image is the solar wind, the charged particles that constantly stream out of the Sun and across the solar system.

This creates the bubble Earth and its neighbors move through. And out of frame, another spacecraft is also on the scene, the Solar Orbiter launched by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).

That spacecraft, like STEREO-A, is designed to study the Sun, but through a stroke of good luck, Solar Orbiter's trajectory happened to align with that of Comet ATLAS and its tails.

Comet tails come in pairs: an ion tail created of charged particles that point away from the Sun at all times and a dust tail of light-reflecting rubble.

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NASA’s Findings

NASA's Solar Orbiter crossed the ion tail of ATLAS at the end of May, while these images were being gathered, although the spacecraft is out of frame.

And conveniently, the Solar Orbiter comes equipped with several instruments capable of making meaningful measurements of these tails.

Although the spacecraft, which launched in February, was not due to begin its science work until later this month, mission personnel decided the comet was too tempting to pass up.

The NASA team consequently arranged for four key instruments to begin gathering observations ahead of schedule.