NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope recently took an image of the largest comet ever recorded.
The space agency wanted to confirm the size of the comet, which was dubbed Bernardinelli-Bernstein after the astronomers who discovered it. On Tuesday, NASA announced that the comet’s nucleus – the central part of the comet – is about 80 miles in diameter, about 50 times larger than typical comets in our solar system.
In terms of total mass, Bernardinelli-Bernstein is estimated at 500 trillion tons, which NASA says is 100,000 times greater than standard comets found closer to the Sun.
“We always suspected that this comet must be big because it is so bright at such a great distance. Now we confirm it,” said David Jewitt, professor of astronomy at the University of California, Los Angeles, co-author of the Hubble study of the comet, confirming its size.
The comet’s size was initially estimated at between 62 and 124 miles when astronomers first spotted the icy rock in archived images taken by the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile in 2014.
In January, NASA used Hubble to take five photos of Bernardinelli-Bernstein. However, the object was too distant for the images to fully discern the comet’s nucleus. Instead, images also captured the comet’s coma, the cloud-like sphere around the icy body.
The coma results from the warming of the comet as it approaches the Sun. So to remove the coma, the astronomers created a computer model that could remove the intrusive glow from the images while leaving the core intact.
According to NASA, comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein is currently located at the edge of our solar system, traveling at 22,000 miles per hour. But don’t worry, it will never approach Earth. The comet’s closest approach will be in 2031 when it reaches 1 billion kilometers from the Sun, which is slightly further than Saturn’s orbit.
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“Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein follows a 3 million year long elliptical orbit, moving it about half a light year away from the Sun,” NASA added. “The comet is now less than 2 billion miles from the Sun, falling almost perpendicular to the plane of our solar system.”
The previous record holder for the largest comet is C/2002 VQ94, which spans 60 miles in diameter. But even if Bernardinelli-Bernstein is the new top dog, he may not hold the record for long.
“This comet is literally the tip of the iceberg for several thousand comets that are too faint to be seen in the most distant parts of the solar system,” Jewitt said. Therefore, it’s possible that astronomers may one day identify an even larger comet lurking at the edge of our solar system in the Oort Cloud, where billions of comets likely reside.
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