Ancient Comet—80 Miles Across—Traveling Our Way Comes From The Oort Cloud

Oort Cloud research and discovered objects

Scientists’ current understanding of the population of the Oort Cloud is based on a small sample of bodies that are in orbits with perihelions of less than 10 astronomical units. At the same time, only some of them had cometary activity, which facilitates the search for such objects and makes it possible to estimate the composition of their surface layer.

Comparison of the nucleus sizes of the largest comets discovered to date. Credit: NASA, ESA, Zena Levy (STScI)
Comparison of the nucleus sizes of the largest comets discovered to date. Credit: NASA, ESA, Zena Levy (STScI)

The recent discovery of comet C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein), originally thought to be an Oort cloud dwarf planet now moving towards the Sun, allows astronomers to learn more about the properties of bodies from the outskirts of the solar system, which include objects captured from the interstellar medium, and bodies born at the dawn of the Solar System.

Comet C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein) is the largest comet in the Solar System

Initial discovery of the now-largest comet

The discovery of 2014 UN271 was announced on June 19, 2021, as part of the DES (Dark Energy Survey). Initial observations of the object indicated that its current orbital period is 3 million years, with the aphelion of its orbit reaching the interior of the Oort cloud. A preliminary estimate of the size of 2014 UN271 suggested that it is a fairly large object, possibly a dwarf planet.

TESS images of comet C/2014 UN271, as well as Kuiper Belt objects and asteroids. Credit: Tony L. Farnham et al. / The Planetary Science Journal, 2021
TESS images of comet C/2014 UN271, as well as Kuiper Belt objects and asteroids. Credit: Tony L. Farnham et al. / The Planetary Science Journal, 2021

Further observations, classification, and distance

New observations of the object made on June 22, 2021, using the 1-meter Sutherland telescope on the ground network LCOGT showed that it is active and has a slightly asymmetric coma, which is typical for comets. At the time of the 2014 observations, UN271 was at a distance of 20.18 astronomical units, the brightness was estimated at 19.8 magnitudes, which is slightly larger than predicted. The presence of a coma is also confirmed by observational data from the SkyGems telescope in Namibia.

Animation from TESS images showing the movement of the comet over a period of 4 weeks. Credit: Ben Montet / TESS
Animation from TESS images showing the movement of the comet over a period of 4 weeks. Credit: Ben Montet / TESS

Speed & Trajectory

In this regard, the Center for Minor Planets reclassified the object as a comet on June 24, 2021, now it has the designation C / 2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein). The object is moving at a speed of 35 thousand kilometers per hour from the edge of the solar system towards its center. According to scientists, we can all remain calm: the comet will not approach the Sun closer than 1.6 billion kilometers. This is even further than the planet Saturn.

Size & Mass: Largest Comet to date

While the comet is located extremely far and our telescopes cannot capture it in better quality at this point, scientists used the brightness of the nucleus to create a computer model and use it for accurate simulations.

It was confirmed that the approximate size of the nucleus is about 80 miles, which makes it 50 times larger than the majority of the largest comets to date. Scientists also believe that its approximate mass is 500 trillion tons.

When will it approach Earth?

The comet is expected to pass its perihelion at a distance of about 10.5 astronomical units from the Sun in early 2031. Scientists hope to conduct a series of observations of it, as they can provide unique information about the properties and composition of bodies left over from the formation of the Solar System.


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Sources:

Gianopoulos, A. (2022, April 6). Hubble confirms largest comet nucleus ever seen. NASA.
Hui, M.-T., Jewitt, D., Yu, L.-L., & Mutchler, M. J. (2022, April 12). Hubble Space Telescope Detection of the Nucleus of Comet C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli–Bernstein). The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Phys.org. (2022, April 12). 4 billion-year-old relic from early solar system heading our way.
SciTechDaily. (2022, April 12). Hubble confirms largest comet nucleus ever seen – a staggering 500 trillion tons headed this way.

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