Scientists Confirm What's at Heart of This Comet Is Huge

Nucleus of C/2014 UN271 is around 80 miles across and 'blacker than coal'
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 13, 2022 12:29 PM CDT

The biggest comet nucleus ever detected is wider than New Jersey and is hurtling through space at 22,000mph, NASA says. Observations from the Hubble Space Telescope have confirmed that the nucleus of Comet C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein) is 50 times larger than what is at the heart of most comets, with an estimated mass of 50 trillion tons, NPR reports. Researchers say the nucleus is around 80 miles across, a full 20 miles wider than the previous record holder, which was spotted in 2002. This comet, first observed in 2010, is so enormous that it was once mistaken for a dwarf planet, but later observations detected the icy object's tail, or "coma," reports LiveScience.

Researchers used Hubble's observations to create a computer model and gauge the size of the nucleus and coma, reports. The comet is moving in our direction but there's no danger of a close encounter: The object is on a 3 million-year-long elliptical orbit and will still be a billion miles away from the sun when it is at its closest point to us in 2031, researchers say. Scientists say the megacomet traveled from the Oort cloud at the edge of the solar system, believed to be home to trillions of comets. Occasionally, some comets are sent towards our sun by a gravitational tug from other stars in a process NASA likens to "shaking apples from a tree."

"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,” David Jewitt, a planetary science professor at UCLA, said in a statement. "We’ve always suspected this comet had to be big because it is so bright at such a large distance. Now we confirm it is." He says the Hubble observations show that the comet's nucleus is darker than expected. "It's big and it's blacker than coal," he says. (More comets stories.)

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