But NASA and the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter just flew near what’s left of ATLAS, giving scientists a rare look at what happens to a comet’s tail when it’s no longer tailing anything.
First observed in December 2019, ATLAS was on the space agencies’ radars for a while and would have been visible to the naked eye in May 2020, but it grew rapidly brighter in the preceding month and crumbled before that could happen.
(It was going to be in the area anyway, so it was a convenient enough space errand to run.) The research team took combined measurements of ATLAS’ remnants using all of Solar Orbiter’s in-situ instruments: its energetic particle detector, magnetometer, radio and plasma waves experiment, and solar wind analyzer.
The Solar Orbiter’s magnetometer was vital to the team’s observations, as it takes measurements of local magnetic fields, enabling the team to see how the magnetic field of the comet’s tail interacted with the magnetic field carried through the solar system by the solar wind.
“This is quite a unique event and an exciting opportunity for us to study the makeup and structure of comet tails in unprecedented detail,” said Lorenzo Matteini, a solar physicist at Imperial College London and leader of the recent work, in the same release.
“Hopefully with the Parker Solar Probe and Solar Orbiter now orbiting the Sun closer than ever before, these events may become much more common in the future!”
Amateur astronomers certainly missed out on what would have been a spectacular view last year.