Scientists have been making fascinating observations in space for decades. From planets and their moons to our neighboring solar systems, we've been able to learn a lot about what lies beyond our planet's atmosphere. Most recently, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has announced the size of the largest icy comet nucleus ever recorded by astronomers.
The behemoth comet, C/2014 UN271 - better known as the Bernardinelli-Bernstein comet - has surpassed comet C/2002 VQ94 in size, having an estimated diameter spanning nearly 80 miles across. The diameter of the previous titleholder, discovered in 2002 by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) project, measured a mere 60 miles. The Bernardinelli-Bernstein comet may seem like it could cause serious problems for Earthlings since it's traveling our way at a speed of 22,000 miles per hour from the edge of the solar system. However, according to scientists, there's no need to worry - the closest it will ever get to the Sun leaves it 1 billion miles away from the center of our solar system. From such a safe distance, we can appreciate the comet's fascinating size recently revealed.
"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," said David Jewitt, co-author of the recent study and a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) professor who teaches planetary science and astronomy. "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." With a nucleus measuring nearly 50 times larger than most comets, Bernardinelli-Bernstein has a mass of nearly 500 trillion tons - 100,000 times greater than average. It was first discovered in 2010 by astronomers Pedro Bernardinelli and Gary Bernstein, who it was later named after.
Comets are leftover icy chunks that remain from the early days of our solar system. Astronomers theorize that several of them exist in the Oort Cloud, a theoretical idea of a spherical shell that covers our solar system. Comets are pushed to the cloud by the gravity of larger planets but can travel back towards the Sun when their orbits experience the gravitational pull of passing stars. Although it may be both frightening and fascinating to know such bodies exist in the space that surrounds our celestial neighborhood, at least we know we're safe from the biggest bully in town.