681. COMET ATLAS C/2019 N1          Perihelion: 2020 December 1.81, q = 1.705 AU

As we begin to approach the mid-way point of 2020 in this coronavirus-changed world, life continues on. I remain busy with "Ice and Stone 2020," and an article I wrote for Sky and Telescope about the 25th anniversary of my discovery of Comet Hale-Bopp has just come out in print. My younger son Tyler just earned his Bachelor's Degree in Electrical Engineering from New Mexico State University, although there was no formal graduation ceremony (and, in truth, he hadn't planned on attending anyway). For the time being my older son Zachary remains in Adelaide, South Australia, where his partner Karina is finishing up her Doctoral degree at Flinders University. Meanwhile, due to coronavirus concerns Vickie's father has now been living with us for over two months, and it is conceivable that that could become a permanent arrangement, although no decisions have been made as of yet.

We have had a decent amount of clear weather laterly, and I've been busy with comet observations, especially with the heavy pace of recent additions to my tally. Unfortunately, at least some of the hoped-for bright comet prospects have not panned out; Comet ATLAS C/2019 Y4 (no. 673), which should have been reaching its brightest right about now, has all but completely disintegrated, and Comet SWAN C/2020 F8 (no. 680), which I've been able to observe in morning twilight a couple of times but which remains poorly placed for observations from my latitude, also appears to be fading and diffusing out, and whether or not there will be anything of it left to see when it becomes somewhat accessible in my evening sky this coming week remains to be seen. Two additional comets that at present are only accessible from the southern hemisphere do show some promise: Comet Lemmon C/2019 U6 (no. 674) has brightened rapidly within the recent past and theoretically could be close to naked-eye brightness when it becomes accessible for me again near the end of June, and Comet NEOWISE C/2020 F3 (no. 676) also appears to be brightening steadily. I still have hopes that Comet NEOWISE will put on some kind of decent display during July to help me mark the anniversary of the Hale-Bopp discovery, but we'll have to wait and see what happens.

In the meantime, I've added one more comet to my tally. This object was discovered back on July 5, 2019, by the ATLAS program in Hawaii, at which time it was located in far northern circumpolar skies at a declination of +82 degrees and about 18th magnitude. It has remained in far northern skies ever since, traveling south to a declination of +60 degrees in early January 2020 before climbing back north to just north of declination +80 degrees in late April shortly after it had gone through opposition. Various reports I've read have indicated that it has been steadily brightening, and I made a couple of earlier unsuccessful attempts for it, however after taking a couple of recent images with the Las Cumbres Observatory network that indicated that it was close to being bright enough for visual observations I made an additional attempt under excellent sky conditions on the evening of May 21, and successfully spotted it as an extremely faint, small and condensed object of magnitude 14 1/2 near the limit of visibility, that exhibited the expected motion over the course of the next hour.

Comet ATLAS is traveling in a steeply-inclined orbit (inclination 82 degrees) and at this time is still a little over six months away from perihelion passage. For the time being it is still in northern circumpolar skies, in Draco at a declination of +75 degrees, and is traveling at half a degree per day, presently towards the south-southwest but turning more and more directly southward. After passing ten arcminutes northwest of the large galaxy NGC 4236 in early June and later crossing into Ursa Major, it travels through the eastern portion of the "bowl" of the Big Dipper late that month before crossing into Canes Venatici in late July and into Coma Berenices in mid-August; during the last week of that month it crosses the Coma Star Cluster (Melotte 111). By that time the comet will be getting low in the western sky after dusk and meanwhile may have brightened to about 13th magnitude.

After being in conjunction with the sun shortly before mid-October Comet ATLAS begins emerging into the morning sky around the time of perihelion passage in early December, at which time it will be located in southeastern Virgo and may have brightened to about 11th magnitude. Now traveling towards the south-southeast at somewhat over 40 arcminutes per day, it passes through eastern Hydra before crossing into Centaurus in mid-December and into Lupus at the beginning of January 2021; during the latter part of that month it enters southern circumpolar skies. The comet is nearest Earth (1.91 AU) in early February, at which time it will be located in Apus at a declination of -74 degrees; at the end of that month it passes just over 1 1/2 degrees from the South Celestial Pole. It travels back northward after that but remains in southern skies, and should remain visually detectable until perhaps April or May.

It does not appear, then, that I will be getting that many observations of this particular Comet ATLAS. When visible late this year it will be low in my southeastern morning sky, and it will probably only be accessible for a month of so -- perhaps six weeks -- before it drops below my southern horizon and I lose it. Given the uncertainty of all the goings-on right now, it will be interesting to see what the world, and my personal, circumstances are at that time.

INITIAL OBSERVATION: 2020 May 22.21 UT, m1 = 14.5, 0.3' coma, DC = 4-5 (41 cm reflector, 229x)



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