It’s proving to be a special year for comets, with the astronomical gods looking down favourably on us in these strange times. With the memory still strong of the spectacular Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE), which totally dominated last summer’s observing scene, Comet C/2020 M3 (ATLAS) is now in the late-evening sky among the bright stars of Orion and is bright enough to be viewed through a pair of binoculars from a dark-sky site.
Comet C/2020 M3 (ATLAS) passes a few degrees west of the Orion Nebula (Messier 42) on 8 November. Image: Michael Jaeger.
Comet C/2020 M3 (ATLAS) was discovered on 27 June 2020 by the Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System (ATLAS), based on the Hawaiian islands. Another comet discovery by the programme, Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS), briefly offered the exciting prospect of a naked-eye comet last spring before it was destroyed by the Sun’s massive and unyielding gravitational forces.
This time around though, today’s ATLAS has already passed through perihelion (closest point to the Sun), on 25 October, and survived intact and in fine fettle to offer potential binocular visibility in a dark sky. Over the summer months the comet was too far south to view from UK shores, ...