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.
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 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 comet’s orbit is perpendicular to the plane of the Solar System and it will reach its closest point to the Sun, when it will be around 11 AU away.
Despite the comet’s size, it is currently predicted that skywatchers will require a large amateur telescope to see it, even at its brightest.
Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein is not expected to become naked-eye bright: it will remain a telescopic object because its closest distance to the Sun will still be beyond Saturn.
“Since the new object was far in the south and quite faint, we knew there wouldn’t be many other telescopes that could observe it,” said Dr. Tim Lister, an astronomer at Las Cumbres Observatory.
“Fortunately, Las Cumbres Observatory has a network of robotic telescopes across the world, particularly in the southern hemisphere, and we were able to quickly get images from the Las Cumbres Observatory telescopes in South Africa.
This image of comet C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein) was taken by the Las Cumbres Observatory 1-m telescope at Sutherland, South Africa, on June 22, 2021; the diffuse cloud is the comet’s coma. Image credit: LOOK project, Las Cumbres Observatory.
The new images of comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein were captured by one of Las Cumbres Observatory’s 1-m telescopes hosted at the South African Astronomical Observatory on June 22, 2021.
Members of the Las Cumbres Observatory Outbursting Objects Key (LOOK) project from New Zealand were the first to notice the comet.
The analysis of the new images showed a fuzzy coma around the object, indicating that it was active and was indeed a comet.
“Since we’re a team based all around the world, it just happened that it was my afternoon, while the other folks were asleep,” said Dr. Michele Bannister, an astronomer at the University of Canterbury.
“The first image had the comet obscured by a satellite streak and my heart sank.”
“But then the others were clear enough and gosh: there it was, definitely a beautiful little fuzzy dot, not at all crisp like its neighboring stars!”
“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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