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Largest Comet Nucleus Ever Seen

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has determined the size of the largest icy comet nucleus ever seen by astronomers.  The estimated diameter is approximately 80 miles across.

The nucleus is about 50 times larger than found at the heart of most known comets. Its mass is estimated to be a staggering 500 trillion tons, a hundred thousand times greater than the mass of a typical comet found much closer to the Sun.

This diagram compares the size of the icy, solid nucleus of comet C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein) to several other comets. The majority of comet nuclei observed are smaller than Halley’s comet. They are typically a mile across or less. Comet C/2014 UN271 is currently the record-holder for big comets. And, it may be just the tip of the iceberg. There could be many more monsters out there for astronomers to identify as sky surveys improve in sensitivity. Though astronomers know this comet must be big to be detected so far out to a distance of over 2 billion miles from Earth, only the Hubble Space Telescope has the sharpness and sensitivity to make a definitive estimate of nucleus size. CREDIT ILLUSTRATION: NASA, ESA, Zena Levy (STScI)

The comet, C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein) is barreling this way at 22,000 miles per hour from the edge of the solar system. It will never get closer than 1 billion miles away from the Sun, which is slightly farther than the distance of the planet Saturn. And that won’t be until the year 2031.

This sequence shows how the nucleus of Comet C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein) was isolated from a vast shell of dust and gas surrounding the solid icy nucleus. On the left is a photo of the comet taken by the NASA Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 on January 8, 2022. A model of the coma (middle panel) was obtained by means of fitting the surface brightness profile assembled from the observed image on the left. This allowed for the coma to be subtracted, unveiling the point-like glow from the nucleus. Combined with radio telescope data, astronomers arrived at a precise measurement of the nucleus size. That’s no small feat from something about 2 billion miles away. Though the nucleus is estimated to be as large as 85 miles across, it is so far away it cannot be resolved by Hubble. Its size is derived from its reflectivity as measured by Hubble. The nucleus is estimated to be as black as charcoal. The nucleus area is gleaned from radio observations. CREDIT NASA, ESA, Man-To Hui (Macau University of Science and Technology), David Jewitt (UCLA) Image Processing: Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

The comet has been falling toward the Sun for well over 1 million years. It is coming from the hypothesized nesting ground of trillions of comets, called the Oort Cloud. The diffuse cloud is thought to have an inner edge at 2,000 to 5,000 times the distance between the Sun and the Earth. Its outer edge might extend at least a quarter of the way out to the distance of the nearest stars to our Sun, the Alpha Centauri system.

Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein follows a 3-million-year-long elliptical orbit, taking it as far from the Sun as roughly half a light-year. The comet is now less than 2 billion miles from the Sun, falling nearly perpendicular to the plane of our solar system. At that distance temperatures are only about minus 348 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet that’s warm enough for carbon monoxide to sublimate off the surface to produce the dusty coma.

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