Close

A coma or zone of gas and dust has been discovered surrounding the mega comet C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein) – and it is coming in 10 years! Space.com, citing astronomers from New Zealand, said it could be 1,000 times more massive than a conventional comet. It could be the largest comet ever discovered in recorded history.

On July 14, the LCO released an image of the comet, which showed a hazy coating encircling the nucleus. It's becoming increasingly evident that this object is a comet, not a minor planet (a fancy phrase for an asteroid).

Photos from one of the Las Cumbres Observatory's 1-meter telescopes hosted at the South African Astronomical Observatory were released on June 23 at midnight EDT. Thanks to the team that monitors images collected by the Las Cumbres Observatory (LCO). In New Zealand, it's currently afternoon.

"The other folks were asleep," recalled LCO team member Michele Bannister, of the New Zealand's University of Canterbury, in a statement released Wednesday (July 14).

Comet C/2014 UN271
(Photo: LOOK/LCO)
Comet C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein), as seen in a synthetic color composite image made with the Las Cumbres Observatory 1-meter telescope at Sutherland, South Africa, on 22 June 2021. The diffuse cloud is the comet’s coma.

However, because of the ever-present problem of satellites passing over the field of vision of telescopes, she initially thought the new imagery was a dud.

"The first image had the comet obscured by a satellite streak, and my heart sank," she continued. "But then the others were clear enough, and gosh: there it was, definitely a beautiful little fuzzy dot, not at all crisp like its neighboring stars."

Frothy Coma

A frothy coma developing at an unbelievable distance from the sun drew Bannister's attention. Bernardinelli-Bernstein was about 19 astronomical units (AU) from the sun when the image was taken. (One AU is the average distance between Earth and the sun, which is around 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers.) Saturn's orbital distance from the sun is roughly doubled. At that point in time, solar energy is a fraction of what we have today on Earth.

The comet, on the other hand, has a lot of mass to heat up. The massive core (or nucleus) of Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein is predicted to be more than 62 miles (100 kilometers) in diameter, which is three times larger than the next-largest comet nucleus, that of Comet Hale-Bopp. Space.com said this famous naked-eye comet passed past Earth in 1998. Bernardinelli-Bernstein, unfortunately for keen astronomers, will not be able to travel extremely close to our planet for observations.

ALSO READ: Comets Are Low-Key Metals; Here's What Scientists Found in an Interstellar Discovery


When Is The Next Bernardinelli-Bernstein's Closest Approach?

The closest approach of Bernardinelli-Bernstein to the sun would still be beyond Saturn in 2031, Gizmodo said. But scientists have a decade to prepare. If history is any indication, telescopes on the ground and in orbit, as well as any nearby spacecraft, will stare at the comet in order to learn as much as possible about its composition and history.

The LCO's LOOK Project, which already monitors numerous comets, will continue to monitor Bernardinelli-Bernstein; the expected viewing schedule can be seen here. According to the announcement, it is likely to be of assistance because its network of telescopes allows for a "quick response" of 15 minutes whenever eruptions occur. However, LCO scopes will not be the only ones keeping an eye on things.

In the same release, LOOK member Tim Lister, an LCO staff scientist, added that there are now a huge number of surveys monitoring regions of the sky every night, such as the Zwicky Transient Facility and the planned Vera C. Rubin Observatory.

He stated that these studies could send alerts if one of the comets' brightness abruptly changes. The LCO robotic telescopes will then be triggered, providing us with more comprehensive data and a longer look at the evolving comet as the survey moves to various sky locations.

RELATED ARTICLE: Solar System Is Expecting a Visitor From the Oort Cloud Soon; Could It Be Among the Largest Comets Yet?

Check out more news and information on Space in Science Times.