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The largest known comet has been traveling for millions of years

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Astronomers have discovered the largest known comet, which is about a thousand times larger than other comets.

A starry sky: This illustration shows Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein as it would appear in the outer solar system.

© J. da Silva / NOIRLab / NSF / AURA
This illustration shows Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein as it might appear in the outer solar system.

Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein, so named because it was found by the University of Pennsylvania Department of Physics and Astronomy, Pedro Bernardinelli and Professor Gary Bernstein, lies between 62 to 124 miles (100 to 200 kilometers) away. The team announced the discovery in June.


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This unusual comet will make its closest approach to our sun in 2031, but you’ll likely need a large, amateurish telescope to see it.

The giant comet, also known as C/2014 UN271, lies from the fringes of our solar system and has been making its way toward our sun for millions of years. This is also the farthest comet ever discovered on its journey inland, which will provide scientists with a chance to observe and study it for years to come.

Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein was found during six years of data collected by the Dark Energy Camera, located on the 4-meter Victor M Blanco Telescope at Cerro Tololo International Observatory in Chile. Data collected by this camera is fed into The Dark Energy Survey, a collaboration of more than 400 scientists in seven countries and 25 institutions.

The camera, also known as DECam, helps map the 300 million galaxies across the night sky — but it also captures glimpses of comets and trans-Neptunes, or icy celestial bodies, located along the outskirts of the solar system, beyond the planet Neptune. revolves in orbit.

Bernardinelli and Bernstein used the algorithms at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to identify trans-Neptunian objects. During their work, the astronomers tracked 32 single object detections.

Comets are icy remnants that were expelled from the Solar System when the giant planets formed and migrated to their current formations. As comets approach our sun during their orbits, their ice evaporates, creating their distinctive appearance.

Comets include a nucleus, or solid “dirty snowball” at their center. Coma are gaseous clouds that form around the nucleus as the comet’s ice evaporates. Evaporating gas and dust are also pushed behind the comet, resulting in two sunlit tails. These tails can be hundreds or even millions of miles long.

Body images taken between 2014 and 2018 did not show a comet’s tail. But over the past three years, the object has grown a tail, officially making it a Bernardinelli-Bernstein comet.

Observations made using the network of telescopes at Las Cumbres Observatory around the world helped confirm the comet’s active status.

“Because we are a team based around the world, it just so happened that it was noon, while the other people were asleep. The first image was obscuring the comet by the satellite line, and my heart sank. But then the others sank. It was clear enough and wonderful: there was , certainly a beautiful little misty dot, not at all as conspicuous as the stars next to it!” Michelle Bannister, an astronomer at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, said in a statement.

The comet’s journey began 3.7 trillion miles (6 trillion km) from the sun, or 40,000 astronomical units. The distance between the Earth and the Sun is one astronomical unit. For reference, Pluto is 39 AU from the Sun.

The comet came from the Oort Cloud of Objects, an isolated group of icy objects that are farther than anything else in our solar system. Scientists think this is where comets come from, but they’ve never seen anything inside the Oort cloud.

The Oort cloud is between 2,000 and 100,000 AU from the Sun. Eventually, NASA spacecraft such as Voyager 1 and 2, as well as New Horizons, will reach the Oort cloud. But by the time they do, their sources of strength will have been dead for centuries.

Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein is currently located about 1.8 billion miles (3 billion km) away – about Uranus’ distance from the Sun – and at its closest point in 2031, it will be slightly more than Saturn’s distance from the Sun.

“We have the privilege of discovering perhaps the largest comet we’ve ever seen – or at least the largest of any well-studied comet – and finding it early enough for people to watch as it evolves as it approaches and warms,” ​​Bernstein said in a statement. . “He has not visited the planets for more than 3 million years.”

This extraordinary opportunity to study the comet’s interior will allow astronomers to better understand the comet’s origin and composition. It may just be one of the many giant comets that have originated in the Oort Cloud.

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