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A giant comet is on its way to our solar system

A giant comet is on its way to our solar system

  • toTanya Banner


Two researchers have discovered a huge comet: not only is its size impressive, but it is also on its way to the solar system.

FRANKFURT – Comets have long been considered a cause of disaster, but those days are long gone. Today, celestial bodies are measured internally by amateur and professional astronomers and accurately observed in their orbits through space. If the comet is visible in the sky with the naked eye, then joy is especially wonderful – as in the summer of 2020, when Comet Neowise (C2020 / F3) can be seen in the evening sky for weeks* I was. Researchers have now discovered a particularly amazing sample of a comet in the depths of the universe.

Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein (C/2014 UN .)271) spotted by researchers Pedro Bernardinelli and Gary Berstein. “We may have discovered the largest comet ever seen,” Bernstein says happily. “It’s at least bigger than any comet studied in more detail so far.” Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein is on its way from the Oort Cloud towards the Solar System. This is good news for astronomers: Never before has a comet been detected en route to the Solar System at such a great distance. Researchers have many years to observe the comet on its journey.

A huge comet has been discovered – it’s on its way to the solar system

How does it behave when it approaches the sun? In general, comets begin to empty when they reach warmer regions and their ice begins to melt. Then a typical comet’s tail appears. Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein astronomers will now be able to follow all this closely. The size of the comet has so far been estimated to be about 100 to 200 kilometers – about ten times the size of most known comets. Celestial bodies are a relic of the past, and for research they are especially interesting because through them one can look into the “past” of the solar system, so to speak. The analysis of material from the comet should be particularly interesting. “No comet has visited the solar system for the past three million years,” Bernstein says with certainty.

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Giant comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein already has a comet’s tail

The discovery of a giant comet sounds strange, but in fact the story is not uncommon: researchers Bernardinelli and Bernstein discovered the comet in images of the Dark Energy Survey, a systematic sky survey. For this project, a 570MP camera installed on a telescope in Chile is collecting data; Among other things, 300 million galaxies are mapped to a specific part of the sky. Comets or trans-Neptune objects that moved through the camera’s field of view were also recorded.

With the help of a supercomputer and special algorithms, Bernardinelli and Bernstein were able to identify more than 800 trans-Neptune objects – icy celestial bodies that move in the Solar System beyond Neptune’s orbit – in the data. Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein can also be seen on images from 2014 to 2018 – however, at that time, it did not yet have a typical comet’s tail. This was only discovered later. A day after announcing the discovery in June 2021, astronomers took new pictures of the comet’s interior and discovered: Since 2018, Bernardinelli Bernstein has developed a tail – it’s So he is actually guiltyAs confirmed by the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein (C/2014 UN .)271approaching the sun

According to the information, the giant comet began its journey towards the solar systems at a distance of more than 40,000 astronomical units (AU) from the sun. An astronomical unit describes the average distance between the Earth and the Sun (about 149 million km), so the comet was 40,000 times further from the Sun than Earth and comes from the Oort Cloud in the outer part of the Solar System.

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When it was first recorded in 2014, the comet was 29 AU from the Sun (roughly the distance between the Sun and Neptune), and in June 2021 it was still 20 AU (roughly the distance between the Sun and Uranus). In 2031, Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein is expected to reach its closest point to the Sun, the so-called perihelion. Then it will be much closer to the Sun, the distance should be only 11 AU (the distance from the Sun to Saturn). It won’t get any closer to the Sun, and it’s too early to look at an object that can be seen with the naked eye: researchers currently assume that the comet can only be seen from its closest point with the help of a large telescope.

Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein (C/2014 UN271) is on its way from the edge of the Solar System to its center. (artist’s impression)

© NOIRLab / NSF / AURA / J. da Silva

Giant comet (C/2014 UN271) by the Astronomy Society

In the coming years, Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein will be tracked by the astronomy community to learn more about its formation and behavior. The researchers believe there are other comets in this size range in the Oort cloud. The theory is that after the formation of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, these large icy celestial bodies were scattered in the outer reaches of the solar system. “Finding large objects like Comet Bernardinelli Amber is critical to understanding the early history of our solar system,” said Chris Davis of the National Science Foundation.

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It is not yet clear how energetic and bright Bernardinelli Amber’s Comet will be when it reaches its closest position to the sun. But what is already certain is that the future Vera C. Rubin telescope will “constantly measure” the comet on its way to perihelion. (Tania Banner) * view from IPPEN.MEDIA.