Hubble telescope spots largest comet known to date

Comets aren’t known for being gargantuan, but there are clearly exceptions to that rule. Researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope have spotted the largest comet known to date, C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein). With an 80 mile diameter core, it easily eclipses the 60 mile circumference of the previous record holder C/2002 VQ94 – it is about 50 times larger than the typical comet.

The comet was first discovered in 2010 by its namesake astronomers Pedro Bernardinelli and Gary Bernstein. However, scientists only recently verified the size by comparing Hubble images to a computer model of the coma (the comet’s ‘atmosphere’ as it releases gas) and data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/ submillimeter Array. At about 2 billion kilometers from Earth, C/2014 UN271 is too far away for Hubble to visualize the core.

And before you ask: no, there is no danger of a shock collision. C/2014 UN271 is in a 3 million year long elliptical orbit that will bring it no closer than a billion kilometers from the Sun, or slightly beyond the distance of Saturn, in 2031. It appears to originate from the Oort cloud (the still theoretical nest of comets at least 2,000 AU from the Sun) and can travel up to half a light year. Its temperature of -348F may seem freezing, but it is hot enough to produce a carbon monoxide coma.

Size confirmation isn’t just about bragging. This discovery expands humanity’s understanding of the size of comets and adds to the still limited catalog of very distant comets. It could also provide more evidence for the existence of the Oort cloud and, by extension, help explain the role of the cloud in the development of the solar system.

About Mariel Baker

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