Scientists Have Crowned the Largest-Ever Comet, And It’s Wider Than Rhode Island

Date:14 April 2022 Author: Juandre

Scientists have just crowned a new comet king.

The nucleus of the hulking comet, dubbed C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein), has a diameter more than 85 miles wide—larger than the state of Rhode Island—making it the largest comet ever observed.

Astronomers Pedro Bernardinelli and Gary Bernstein first identified the comet in 2010 after sifting through data from the Dark Energy Survey at Chile’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, but a wide range of observatories and telescopes have studied the comet. Since its discovery, researchers have had a hunch about its massive size, in part because of its luminosity. Even at great distances, the comet’s surface is incredibly bright—far brighter than similar comets.

At the time of its discovery, the comet was roughly three billion miles away from the sun, but hurtling toward the inner reaches of the solar system. Fortunately, C/2014 UN271 isn’t destined to get very close to us. Its nearest approach to Earth won’t bring the comet closer than one billion miles from the sun (roughly the distance from the sun to Saturn), and it’s not expected to reach that point until 2031.

“This is an amazing object, given how active it is when it’s still so far from the sun,” Man-To Hui, an astrophysicist at the Macau University of Science and Technology, Taipa, Macau, says in a NASA press release. “We guessed the comet might be pretty big, but we needed the best data to confirm this.”

Enter the Hubble Space Telescope, which has served nothing but bops since it entered Earth’s orbit in 1990. The team tapped the famed observatory to snap a series of five photos of the comet earlier this year.

astronauts participate in extravehicular activity on the hubble space telescope
Astronauts install a new Power Control Unit (PCU) on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).
STOCKTREK IMAGESGETTY IMAGES

Estimating the size of a comet’s nucleus is no small task. In part, that’s because of the surrounding cloudy halo. It can be difficult for researchers to differentiate between the haze and the mass within.

Still, these observations finally allowed the team to get a true sense of the comet’s massive size. C/2014 UN271 has an estimated mass of approximately 500 trillion tons—that’s roughly 100,000 times larger than similar comets found closer to the sun. The scientists published their findings April 12 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. More observations of the behemoth will provide researchers with more information about the Oort cloud, the cometary nursery past Pluto where C/2014 UN271 likely originated from.

The only loser here is comet C/2002 VQ94, which has now been knocked off its Largest-Comet-Ever pedestal. The comet, discovered in 2002 by astronomers with the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) project, is approximately 60 miles wide. Womp. Womp.

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