Hubble telescope zooms in on the biggest comet ever spotted

Last year, scientists announced that they had discovered a colossal comet just linger in the orbit of Neptune . They estimated its icy...

Last year, scientists announced that they had discovered a colossal comet just linger in the orbit of Neptune. They estimated its icy core to be between 62 and 125 miles long, depending on how bright it is. If the estimates were correct, it would be the largest comet ever discovered.

But scientists wanted to be sure the superlative remained, so in January they pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at the comet and measured its nucleus precisely. As announced this week in Letters from the Astrophysical Journalthe comet’s nucleus could be up to 85 miles across, making it more than twice the width of the state of Rhode Island. It also has a mass of 500 trillion tons, which equates to approximately 2,800 Mount Everest.

“It’s 100 times bigger than the typical comets we’ve been studying for all these years,” said David Jewittastronomer and planetary scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of the new study.

Despite its impressive dimensions, this comet – baptized C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein) after its two discoverers – will only be visible to the naked eye for a brief moment. It is heading towards the sun at 22,000 miles per hour. But at its closest approach, in 2031, it will come just a billion miles from the sun – just behind Saturn’s orbit – where it will appear as a faint glow in the night sky before heading back into the shadow.

With the help of Hubble, however, astronomers can see and study this effervescent alien visitor in all its glory, almost as if they were flying right past it – a spectral haze of blue enveloping a seemingly glowing white heart. “The picture they have is magnificent,” said the co-discoverer of the comet Pedro Bernardinellia University of Washington astrophysicist who was not involved in the study.

Despite its weight, measuring the size of this comet’s nucleus has proven difficult. Although far from the sun, a mere streak of sunlight is enough to vaporize the volatile carbon monoxide ices of the core, creating an obscuring dusty atmosphere known as a coma.

Hubble could not clearly see the comet’s nucleus through this haze. But by taking high-resolution images of the comet with the space telescope, Dr Jewitt and his colleagues were able to create a computer model of the coma, allowing them to digitally remove it from images. With only the core remaining, sizing it up was a breeze.

Their analysis also revealed that its icy core is blacker than coal. This may in part result from them being “cooked by cosmic rays”, Dr Jewitt said. High energy cosmic rays bombarded the nucleus, breaking the chemical bonds on its surface. This allowed some of the lighter elements, like hydrogen, to escape into space, leaving dark-colored carbon behind – making the core a bit like a badly burned slice of toast.

This dark core suggests that this comet – despite its super size – isn’t too different from the others. “Comet nuclei are pretty much always super dark,” said Teddy Kareta, a planetary scientist at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, who was not involved in the study. He suggests comparing comets to piles of roadside snow. “Even though it’s still mostly ice, just adding a little dirt and grime can make a pile of snow look unpleasant and dark.”

More secrets of the comet will be revealed as it nears Saturn’s orbit. But in 2031, as it begins the return of its three-million-year-old solar circuit, astronomers won’t know much more about where it came from, likely in the Oort Cloud – a hypothetical and currently unobservable bubble around of the solar system filled with primitive ice shards of various shapes and sizes.

C/2014 UN271 is a welcome taste of what is hidden in this bubble. But “finding this thing reminds us how little we know about the outer solar system,” Dr Jewitt said. “There’s a lot of stuff out there that we haven’t seen, and a lot of stuff that we haven’t even imagined.”

He added: “Who knows what’s going on there.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Hubble telescope zooms in on the biggest comet ever spotted
Hubble telescope zooms in on the biggest comet ever spotted
Newsrust - US Top News
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