NASA Spacecraft Spots Comet ATLAS Crossing Solar Winds

A NASA spacecraft was able to capture images of the comet ATLAS as it passed through solar winds while approaching the Sun.

A robotic spacecraft launched by NASA was able to capture images of the comet ATLAS passing through solar winds as it approached the Sun. The images were taken as another spacecraft intersected the comet's path.

The Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) is a mission that consists of two identical satellites that were designed to observe the Sun. Although one of the satellites was lost in 2014, the other one, known as STEREO-A, is still operational.

STEREO-A's Observation
NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory, or STEREO-A spacecraft, captured these images of comet ATLAS as it swooped by the Sun from May 25 – June 1. During the observations and outside STEREO’s field of view, ESA/NASA’s Solar Orbiter spacecraft crossed one of the comet’s two tails. NASA/NRL/STEREO/Karl Battams

STEREO-A Spacecraft's Observations

The latest images captured by the robotic spacecraft show various notable cosmic objects. In the short animated footage made by NASA, comet ATLAS can be seen from the top of the frame towards the Sun, which was outside of STEREO-A field of view. As the comet flies towards the Sun, it passes through solar winds, which appear as streams of gust on the left side of the frame. Aside from ATLAS and solar winds, Mercury also appears in the footage as a bright stationary dot.

"In the animated image, ATLAS emerges from the top of the frame and approaches the Sun — off-camera to the left — against gusts of solar wind. Its dust tail, which reflects sunlight, appears white," NASA explained. "Mercury is also visible as a bright dot emerging from the left against the stationary starfield. The vertical streaks in the image are artifacts created by saturation from bright background stars."

Photo of mini comet within ATLAS. Michael Jäger

Solar Orbiter's Mission on ATLAS

According to NASA, the images were taken by the STEREO-A spacecraft from May 25 to June 1. During this period, the comet flew past the Sun. The agency noted that when the spacecraft captured the images, NASA and the European Space Agency's Solar Orbiter spacecraft intersected the path of the comet. Unfortunately, the rare flyby was outside of STEREO-A's view.

NASA noted that it is currently waiting for the data collected by the Solar Orbiter from ATLAS' tail. It was the spacecraft's first scientific operation since it was launched earlier this year. "While STEREO recorded this footage, Solar Orbiter crossed one of comet ATLAS's tails," NASA stated. "Launched in February 2020, the spacecraft wasn't scheduled to enter full science operations until June 15, but engineers adjusted Solar Orbiter's testing schedule and turned on its four most relevant instruments for the encounter."

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