Hubble Confirms ‘Largest Comet’ Is 80 Miles Across

KEY POINTS

  • Comet C/2014 UN271 was first observed in 2010
  • It was about 3 billion miles from the sun at the time.
  • Scientists have continued to observe it using ground and space telescopes
  • Hubble images were then used to determine its size

The Hubble Space Telescope has confirmed just how massive a comet is. At about 80 miles across, it’s heading our way. However, there is no need to worry.

Comet C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein) was first observed in 2010, according to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). It was about 3 billion kilometers from the sun at the time, but scientists continued to observe it using ground and space telescopes.

It was not easy to determine the actual size of its core because of its coma, which is the hazy cloud surrounding it. In their new paper, published Tuesday in Astrophysical Journal Letters, a team of experts present their analysis of the comet based on photos taken by Hubble on January 8, 2022.

Using a “core extraction technique”, researchers determined that the core was likely about 80 miles across, making it larger than the width of Rhode Island. By comparison, the previous record holder is comet C/2002 VQ94, with a core about 60 miles in diameter, NASA noted in a press release.

“(W)e confirm that C/2014 UN 271 is the largest long-period comet ever detected,” the authors wrote.

In fact, the nucleus is said to be 50 times larger than most other comets, and its mass is estimated to be around 500 trillion tons, or one hundred thousand times more than the typical mass of comets, UCLA noted.

“This comet is literally the tip of the iceberg for many thousands of comets that are too faint to be seen in the most distant parts of the solar system,” said study co-author David Jewitt of the UCLA, co-author of the study. University press release. “We always suspected that this comet must be big because it’s so bright at such a great distance. Now we’re confirming that.”

This photo sequence shared by UCLA shows how scientists were able to isolate the fuzzy coma from the solid core. Another photo shows how massive Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein’s nucleus is compared to those of other comets.

The authors also found that the surface of the core may actually be darker than previously thought, with Jewitt describing it in the press release as “bigger and blacker than coal”.

Although the massive comet is heading our way at 22,000 miles per hour and is expected to make its closest approach in 2031, there is no need to panic. It won’t come within a billion miles of the sun. According to NASA, it’s just a little further than Saturn’s distance.

This illustration of a comet shows the atmosphere of dust and gas, known as the coma, and the long tail trailing behind it. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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