A giant comet is actually the largest comet ever seen, new observations by the Hubble Space Telescope confirm.
The nucleus (or solid center) extends from about 80 miles (129 kilometers) cometKnown as C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein), it is larger than Rhode Island, according to a statement from NASA. It is about 50 times larger than the average comet’s nucleus.
“This comet is literally the tip of the iceberg for several thousand comets that are too faint to be seen in the farthest parts of the Solar System,” David Jewett, co-author of a new study confirming the comet’s size and professor of planetary science and astronomy at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) , He said in a NASA statement. “We have always suspected that this comet must be large because it is so bright at such a great distance. Now we confirm it.”
This comet is currently far from Earth, with a speed of about 22,000 miles per hour (35,405 kilometers per hour). Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein It has been falling towards the sun for more than a million years. But do not worry. The closest to us, according to NASA, is about 1 billion miles (1.6 billion km), which won’t arrive until 2031.
Previously, the comet with the “largest nucleus” moniker was C/2002 VQ94, which was observed in 2002 and is estimated to be about 60 miles (96 km) wide.
This new giant comet was first observed in 2010. A few years later, astronomers Pedro Bernardinelli and Gary Bernstein found this object in archival data collected by the Dark Energy Survey at the Cerro Tololo International Observatory in Chile. Since its original discovery, the object has been studied using a wide variety of instruments including ground-based telescopes and space telescopes such as Hubble.
Through observations from Hubble, researchers were finally able to confirm the huge size of the “dirty snowball”. (Comets are called “dirty snowballs” because they are made up of rocks, ice, other material, and debris, although objects can vary in composition.) 2 billion miles (3.2 billion km) from the sun, the icy body is about minus 348 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 211 degrees Celsius).
While cold, this temperature is warm enough to allow carbon monoxide (a process during which a solid turns into a gas) off the comet’s rocky surface, creating a “coma,” an envelope of dust and gas surrounding the comet’s solid center.
“This is an amazing object, given how active it is when it’s still far from the sun,” study lead author Man-To Hui, a researcher at the Macau University of Science and Technology, said in the same NASA statement. “We thought the comet might be very large, but we needed the best data to confirm that.” Therefore, his team used Hubble to take five pictures of the comet on January 8, 2022.
The main challenge the team faced in confirming the size of the nucleus was differentiating between a nucleus and a comet coma.
Bernardinelli-Bernstein is too far from Hubble to pinpoint its exact nucleus, but the team detected a beacon using a telescope, showing the comet’s location. Then they were able to use their Hubble observations, and by using computer modeling technology to show where the object’s coma was, they were able to determine the size of its nucleus.
The team compared their data with previous observations made by the Large Millimeter/ Submillimeter Atacama (ALMA) group in Chile and found that previous volume estimates made with ALMA are in line with the new Hubble results. ALMA radio observations allowed them to focus on the object’s reflection, which indicates that the comet’s surface is darker than they expected.
“It’s big, and it’s blacker than charcoal,” Jewett said.
Scientists believe that comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein travels from Oort cloud, which is the most distant region in our solar system where there are huge numbers of comets. It is believed that the comets that fall into this massive, scattered cloud were formed near the sun but were blown away by gravitational interactions with the giant newborn planets of our solar system. And they tend to stay there unless another attraction pushes them our way.
This comet, being very far from Earth and originating in the farthest reaches of our solar system, is believed to travel over a period of three million years. elliptical orbit around the sun. Scientists think it may travel about half a light-year away from the Sun in the furthest parts of its orbit.
These results are described in Study published today (April 12). In The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
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