Astronomers Discover Giant Comet in Outer Solar System | Astronomy

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Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein, which is between 100 and 200 km (62-124 miles) across, will make its closest approach to the Sun in 2031, according to an analysis of data from the Dark Energy Survey. It could be the largest member of the Oort Cloud ever detected, and it is the first comet on an incoming path to be detected so far away.

This illustration shows comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein as it might look in the outer Solar System. Image credit: NOIRLab / NSF / AURA / J. da Silva.

This illustration shows comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein as it might look in the outer Solar System. Image credit: NOIRLab / NSF / AURA / J. da Silva.

Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein is named after two University of Pennsylvania astronomers, Pedro Bernardinelli and Professor Gary Bernstein, who spotted it in archival images from the Dark Energy Survey.

Also known as C/2014 UN271, the comet is estimated to be 100-200 km across, or about 10 times the diameter of most solar system comets.

Its current inward journey began at a distance of over 40,000 AU (astronomical units) from the Sun. For comparison, Pluto is 39 AU from the Sun, on average.

This means that the comet originated in the Oort Cloud, ejected during early history of the Solar System.

Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein is currently much closer to the Sun. It was first seen by the Dark Energy Survey in 2014 at a distance of 29 AU, and as of June 2021, it was 20 AU from the Sun and currently shines at magnitude 20.

The comets orbit is perpendicular to the plane of the Solar System and it will reach its closest point to the Sun (known as perihelion) in 2031, when it will be around 11 AU away.

Despite the comets size, it is currently predicted that skywatchers will require a large amateur telescope to see it, even at its brightest.

This image from the Dark Energy Survey (DES) is composed of some of the discovery exposures showing comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein. These images show the comet in October 2017, when it was 25 AU away, 83% of the distance to Neptune. Image credit: Dark Energy Survey / DOE / FNAL / DECam / CTIO / NOIRLab / NSF / AURA / P. Bernardinelli & G. Bernstein, UPenn / DESI Legacy Imaging Surveys / T.A. Rector, University of Alaska Anchorage & NSFs NOIRLab / M. Zamani, NSFs NOIRLab / J. Miller, NSFs NOIRLab.

This image from the Dark Energy Survey (DES) is composed of some of the discovery exposures showing comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein. These images show the comet in October 2017, when it was 25 AU away, 83% of the distance to Neptune. Image credit: Dark Energy Survey / DOE / FNAL / DECam / CTIO / NOIRLab / NSF / AURA / P. Bernardinelli & G. Bernstein, UPenn / DESI Legacy Imaging Surveys / T.A. Rector, University of Alaska Anchorage & NSFs NOIRLab / M. Zamani, NSFs NOIRLab / J. Miller, NSFs NOIRLab.

We have the privilege of having discovered perhaps the largest comet ever seen — or at least larger than any well-studied one — and caught it early enough for people to watch it evolve as it approaches and warms up, Professor Bernstein said.

It has not visited the Solar System in more than 3 million years.

The discovery of comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein was announced in the Minor Planet Electronic Circular.

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P. Bernardinelli & G. Bernstein. 2014 UN271. M.P.E.C. # 2021-M53

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