APR 21, 2022 8:00 AM PDT

The Largest Ever Comet Discovered is Heading our Way

WRITTEN BY: Amanpreet Kaur

Think of a snowball mixed with dust and tiny rocks but twice the size of the state of Rhode Island. This space snowball, aka a comet, is the most recently imaged object of this kind using the Hubble Space Telescope by a team of planetary astronomers led by Dr. Man-To Hui of the Macau University of Science and Technology, Taipa Macau. This work was recently published in a peer-review journal, Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Comets are snowballs made of frozen gases, dust, and rocks that orbit our Sun. Unlike planets, their orbits are usually highly elliptical.  This means they could come as near as a few million miles from the Sun to a few billion miles when they are farthest away.  These ancient cosmic snowballs provide direct insight into our Solar System during its primitive state. Usually, they develop a big tail (~million miles) pointing away from the Sun, when they come near it. This tail is made up of particles that burn or glow during their interaction with solar particles and for this reason, a comet’s tail is the longest when it is closest to the Sun. 

This comet, called C/2014 UN271 was serendipitously discovered in 2014 by astronomers Pedro Bernardinelli and Gary Bernstein while they were looking at archival data for a different project that mapped out 300 million galaxies. Dr. Man-To Hui and his team took observations with Hubble to confirm its existence and they found the largest ever discovered comet to date, spanning approximately 80 miles in size. At present, it is quite far away from us, i.e., about 20 AU (1AU = distance of the Earth from the Sun), but it will approach us at its nearest distance in 2031. Fortunately, that distance is large enough that people on Earth don’t have to worry about it. The closest it will come to us will be approximately a bit larger than the distance between us and Saturn. After its closest approach, it will again circle back into deep space for millions of years. 

 

Sources: Astrophysical Journal Letters, NASA, Hubble Space Telescope

About the Author
PhD in Physics
Aman (she/her) is a scientific writer at labroots and an astrophysics researcher at Penn State University. She works in the field of high-energy astrophysics such as black holes, gamma-rays, etc., and collects data from various space telescopes to conduct her research. She received her doctorate from Clemson University in Physics. On a personal note, she loves spending time out in nature; camping or hiking. If given a choice, she will decorate her house only with plants, did she say she likes plants? :D
You May Also Like
MAY 18, 2022
Earth & The Environment
Landslides can have a major impact on glacier melt and movement
MAY 18, 2022
Landslides can have a major impact on glacier melt and movement
When we think of glaciers, horrifying images of them receding into the water because of climate change immediately come ...
MAY 27, 2022
Earth & The Environment
Puzzling features deep in Earth's interior illuminated
MAY 27, 2022
Puzzling features deep in Earth's interior illuminated
The Earth is a wonderful place full of both beauty and mystery. While it’s easy to both study and explore the Eart ...
MAY 22, 2022
Cannabis Sciences
Cannabis and PTSD
MAY 22, 2022
Cannabis and PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD, is a mental health condition that is triggered by a terrifying event ...
MAY 29, 2022
Space & Astronomy
Stars in other galaxies more massive than we thought
MAY 29, 2022
Stars in other galaxies more massive than we thought
The universe is a very big place full of awesome wonders that no human will ever see in its entirety, and that’s w ...
JUN 05, 2022
Technology
Tiny robotic crab is smallest-ever remote-controlled robot
JUN 05, 2022
Tiny robotic crab is smallest-ever remote-controlled robot
If it wasn’t bad enough that robots are going to take over humanity one day, let’s just go ahead and make th ...
JUN 23, 2022
Chemistry & Physics
What is New in ESA's Gaia's Third Data Release
JUN 23, 2022
What is New in ESA's Gaia's Third Data Release
Gaia is a survey mission launched in 2013 on a Soyuz-STB/Fregat-MT launch vehicle from the European Spaceport in Kourou, ...
Loading Comments...