All About Space

Newly found mega comet may be the largest seen in recorded history

The comet is truly a behemoth, beating other known comets thousandfo­ld

- Reported by Elizabeth Howell

Agiant comet found far out in the Solar System may be 1,000 times more massive than a typical comet, making it the largest ever found in modern times. Officially designated on 23 June, it’s called C/2014 UN271, or Bernardine­lli Bernstein after its discoverer­s, University of Pennsylvan­ia graduate student Pedro Bernardine­lli and astronomer Gary Bernstein.

Astronomer­s estimate this icy body has a diameter of 100 to 200 kilometres (62 to 124 miles), making it about ten times wider than a typical comet. This estimate is quite rough, however, as the comet remains far away from Earth, and its size was calculated based on how much sunlight it reflects. The comet will make its closest approach to our planet in 2031, but will remain at quite a distance even then.

“We have the privilege of having discovered perhaps the largest comet ever seen – or at least larger than any well-studied one – and caught it early enough for people to watch it evolve as it approaches and warms up,” Bernstein said on 25 June from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory, or NOIRLab.

First spotted in archival images from the Dark Energy Survey taken in 2014, Comet Bernardine­lli-Bernstein is now located at the equivalent distance of Uranus, roughly 20 astronomic­al units (AU) from the Sun. The comet shines at magnitude +20, making it out of reach of most amateur astronomer­s’ telescopes; by comparison, most people can see objects of magnitude +5 with the naked eye in dark conditions. When the comet swings closer to Earth in 2031, it will still only be at 11 AU, which is a little more distant than Saturn’s average orbit. Even then, amateur sky-watchers will still need to use very large telescopes to see it.

What makes Comet Bernardine­lli-Bernstein so special, aside from its size, is the fact it hasn’t visited the inner Solar System in 3 million years, roughly the same era that the famous human ancestor ‘Lucy’ was walking the Earth. The comet originated some 40,000 AU from the Sun in the Oort Cloud, which is a huge, distant region of space thought to hold trillions of comets.

The comet popped up during a scan of archival images of the Dark Energy Survey, which uses a wide-field 570-megapixel CCD imager mounted on the Víctor M. Blanco telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observator­y in Chile. The survey’s main goal is mapping 300 million galaxies across a swath of the night sky, but its deep-sky observatio­ns have also yielded several comets and trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs), which are icy worlds orbiting beyond Neptune.

Bernardine­lli and Bernstein spotted the comet using the National Center for Supercompu­ting Applicatio­ns and Fermilab, identifyin­g 800 TNOs from archival survey data. While the images of the comet didn’t show a classic tail between 2014 and 2018, an independen­t observatio­ns from the Las Cumbres Observator­y network in 2021 showed the comet now has a coma of gas and dust surroundin­g it. Studying the comet will not only give us more insight into how this massive object formed and evolved, but could also shed light on the early history of giant planet movements in the Solar System.

“We have the privilege of having discovered perhaps the largest comet ever seen, and caught it early”

Gary Bernstein

“Astronomer­s suspect that there may be many more comets of this size waiting in the

Oort Cloud far beyond Pluto and the

Kuiper Belt,” the NSF stated. “These giant comets are thought to have been scattered to the far reaches of the Solar System by the migration of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune early in their history.”

While planned cometary-observatio­n campaigns are in their early stages, a typical big event usually gets attention from the largest telescopes in space and around the world. By 2031, several newer observator­ies may be online to look at Comet Bernardine­lli-Bernstein. Upcoming major ground-based observator­ies include the NSF and Department of Energy’s Vera C. Rubin Observator­y, whose first light is expected in 2022; the European Southern Observator­y’s Extremely Large Telescope, whose first light is expected by 2025, and the Giant Magellan Telescope, which should be up and running by the late 2020s.

It’s harder to predict if any spacecraft will be able to observe the comet’s approach, because space missions tend to be shorter than the life spans of ground-based scopes. It’s possible, however, that a future telescope or mission could be funded by 2031 for comet observatio­ns that are not yet approved or even planned. The major space agencies may also task existing spacecraft across the Solar System to look at Comet Bernardine­lli-Bernstein, as happened near Mars in 2014 when Comet Siding-Spring zoomed past the Red Planet.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to launch in late 2021 for a prime mission of at least five-and-a-half years, although Webb could run for a decade or more if it remains healthy and funding is maintained. The Hubble Space Telescope is famous for comet observatio­ns, and may be available in 2031 despite current problems, although prediction­s say it could be healthy through the mid-2020s and will be deorbited no later than the 2030s.

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 ??  ?? Above: The massive comet is about as far away as Uranus, making size estimates challengin­g
Above: The massive comet is about as far away as Uranus, making size estimates challengin­g

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