NASA’s Hubble telescope discovers the largest comet nucleus ever at 80 miles wide

Astronomers have confirmed the discovery of the largest comet of all time – and it’s coming this way.

Space object C/2014 UN271 was discovered last year and observations from the Hubble Space Telescope this week confirmed the size of its core.

This is the solid, central part of the comet, made up of rock, dust, and ice, separated from its trailing tail.

NASA said Tuesday that the core of C/2014 is about 80 miles across, larger than the state of Rhode Island.

It is about 50 times larger than the heart of most known comets, with a mass estimated at a staggering 500 trillion tons.

“The gigantic comet is hurtling from the edge of the solar system in this direction at 22,000 miles per hour,” NASA wrote on theirs website.

“But no worry. It will never be closer than 1 billion miles from the Sun, which is slightly further than the distance of the planet Saturn. And that will not be before 2031.”

This sequence shows how the core of comet C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein) became isolated by a vast envelope of dust and gas surrounding the solid ice core.
Comet C/2014 UN271 was observed last year (left) and astronomers have now confirmed the size of its nucleus (right), the part without a tail.

Comet C/2014 was discovered by astronomers Pedro Bernardinelli and Gary Bernstein in archival images from the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.

It was first observed in November 2010 when it was three billion miles from the Sun – about as far from the star as Neptune.

Since then, it has been studied extensively by ground- and space-based telescopes as it makes its way into the inner Solar System.

In the new analysis, a team led by David Jewitt, professor of planetary science and astronomy at the University of California, Los Angeles, calculated the magnitude of C/2014 at the highest resolution to date.

They improved previous estimates using Hubble observations and models to isolate the nucleus from the comet’s tail, or “coma.”

Measuring 85 miles across, it beat the previous record holder, a 60-mile wide Comet C/2002 VQ94.

It was discovered by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) project in 2002.

“We confirm that C/2014 UN271 is the largest long-period comet ever discovered,” the team writes in their new article.

Observations of the comet, thought to have emerged from a layer of icy objects surrounding our Sun called the Oort Cloud, could teach us a thing or two about the early Universe.

The objects of the Oort Cloud are believed to be among the oldest in our star system, but are notoriously difficult to study because they are distant and far beyond Pluto.

At 85 miles across, Comet C/2014 UN271 is the largest on record.
At 85 miles across, Comet C/2014 UN271 is the largest on record.
NASA, ESA, Zena Levy (STScI)

“This comet is literally the tip of the iceberg for many thousands of comets that are too faint to see in the more distant parts of the solar system,” Professor Jewitt said.

“We always suspected that this comet must be big because it’s so bright at such a great distance. Now we confirm it.”

The study was published in The Letters of the Astrophysical Journal.

This article originally appeared on The sun and is reproduced here with permission. NASA’s Hubble telescope discovers the largest comet nucleus ever at 80 miles wide


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