Astronomers confirm comet with largest nucleus ever found

Using the Hubble Space Telescope astronomers determined that the nucleus of Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein (C/2014 UN271) is about 80 miles wide, making it the largest comet on record.

The estimated diameter is approximately 80 miles across, making it larger than the state of Rhode Island. The nucleus is about 50 times larger than found at the heart of most known comets. Its mass is estimated to be a staggering 500 trillion tons, a hundred thousand times greater than the mass of a typical comet found much closer to the Sun.

The behemoth comet, C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein) is barreling this way at 22,000 miles per hour from the edge of the solar system. But not to worry. It will never get closer than 1 billion miles away from the Sun, which is slightly farther than the distance of the planet Saturn. And that won’t be until the year 2031.

The previous record holder is comet C/2002 VQ94, with a nucleus estimated to be 60 miles across. It was discovered in 2002 by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) project.

This measurement does have a great deal of uncertainty, as Hubble cannot yet resolve the nucleus, and thus its diameter was determined by computer models based on the size of the comet’s coma, or surrounding atmosphere.

The comet itself has an orbit 3 million years long, which means it has zipped into the inner solar system many many times. The reason its nucleus remains so large is because its orbit never gets that close to the Sun, so its material does not get burned off so much with each perihelion. That it exists suggests there could be many such large comets which never dip close to the Sun.

Orbit of biggest comet ever detected refined

Astronomers have now been able to better refine the orbit and size of Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein, comet with the largest nucleus ever detected.

A new analysis, led by Bernardinelli and Bernstein themselves, found that the comet nucleus is around 150 km wide, based on its brightness. If so, that makes it the largest comet ever discovered, by quite a margin. Most are only a few kilometers to several dozen kilometers wide, while some particularly big ones, like Hale-Bopp, may be up to 80 km (50 miles) wide. The previous record-holder, Sarabat’s Comet of 1729, has been estimated at about 100 km wide.

The team was also able to calculate the orbit of Comet BB in more detail. This object is on an incredibly long round trip into and out of the solar system – at its most distant point, some 1.5 million years ago, it was about 40,400 AU away. Last time it swung through our neighborhood was about 3.5 million years ago, when it came within 18 AU of the Sun.

But its current inward journey will be its closest so far. Astronomers have already calculated that in 2031, Comet BB will peak at 10.9 AU, almost reaching the orbit of Saturn.

It is presently unclear how bright the comet will be when it reachest its closest point. It will be much farther from the Sun than most bright comets, but its large size may change what is normally expected.