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A huge “megacomet” is more than 80 miles wide and has a staggering mass of 500 trillion tons, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has revealed.
The comet, named C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein), was first discovered in 2010, but its size has only been confirmed today.
The nucleus – the comet’s fixed center – is about 50 times larger than the nucleus of most known comets and is the largest NASA has ever seen.
Although the comet is currently less than three billion miles from the sun and on its way to Earth, NASA reassures that it poses no threat to us.
“It will never get closer than 1 billion miles from the sun, which is slightly further than the distance from the planet Saturn. And that won’t be until the year 2031,” NASA said.
A huge ‘mega-comet’ is more than 80 miles wide and has a staggering mass of 500 trillion tons, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has revealed
The comet, named C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein), was first discovered in 2010, but its size has only been confirmed today (artist’s impression)
Comet C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein)
Discovery year: 2010
core beam: 80 miles
Mass: 500 trillion tons
Distance to the sun: Less than two billion miles
Speed: 22,000 mph
Temperature: -348°F (-193°C)
At 80 miles in diameter, the core is larger than the state of Rhode Island and almost as wide as Wales.
And with an estimated mass of 500 trillion tons, Bernardinelli-Bernstein is about 100,000 times more massive than typical comets found much closer to the sun.
“This comet is literally the tip of the iceberg for many thousands of comets that are too faint to see in the more distant parts of the solar system,” said Professor David Jewitt, co-author of the study.
‘We have always suspected that this comet must be large because it is so bright at such a great distance. Now we confirm it is.’
The massive comet is currently hurtling through space at 22,000 mph and is an “astonishing object, considering how active it is when it’s so far from the sun,” said Man-To Hui, the study’s lead author.
“We suspected that the comet could be quite large, but we needed the best data to confirm this,” he added.
To verify its size, the team used NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to capture five images of the comet on January 8, 2022.
At 80 miles in diameter, the core is larger than the state of Rhode Island and almost as wide as Wales. Pictured, how the comet’s nucleus compares to the previous largest comets
Using a computer model, the researchers were able to distinguish between the comet’s solid nucleus and the dusty coma that envelops it, suggesting that the nucleus is even darker than previously thought.
“It’s big and it’s blacker than coal,” Professor Jewitt said.
The comet follows a three-million-year elliptical orbit and is now less than two billion miles from the sun.
At that distance, temperatures are around -348°F (-193°C), according to NASA.
The researchers believe the comet likely originated in the Oort Cloud — the most remote region of our solar system, where an estimated trillions of comets are found.
Images of comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein from 2018 and 2020, with a coma with a ‘sunward asymmetry’
Despite first being hypothesized over 70 years ago, the Oort cloud still remains a theory.
This is because the comets thought to form it are too faint to be directly observed.
The team hopes the discovery of such a large comet will shed light on the mysterious Oort cloud.
“The reality of the Oort cloud is supported by theoretical modeling of the formation and evolution of the solar system,” NASA added.
“The more observational evidence that can be collected through deep sky surveys combined with multi-wavelength observations, the better astronomers will understand the role of the Oort cloud in the evolution of the solar system.”
WHAT IS THE EARTH CLOUD?
The Oort Cloud is a vast and mysterious region thought to surround our solar system.
It contains trillions of comets left over from the birth of the universe – and possibly larger objects such as dwarf planets.
It begins about 0.08 light-years from the sun — 170 times Neptune’s orbit — and extends to about 0.8 light-years.
The Oort Cloud (illustrated) is a vast and mysterious region thought to surround our solar system. It contains trillions of comets left over from the birth of the universe – and possibly larger objects such as dwarf planets
Occasionally, comets from the region make their way into the solar system, also known as long-period comets.
One of the most famous this year was comet Siding Spring, which passed Mars on October 19, 2014.
However, apart from these brief visitors, not much is known about the Oort cloud.
It has never been directly observed and its exact size is not known – although it is thought to determine the sun’s gravity.