Astronomers discover largest known comet approaching our solar system

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This image from the Dark Energy Survey (DES) is composed of some of the discovery exposures showing Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein collected by the 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera (DECam) mounted on the Víctor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile. These images show the comet in October 2017, when it was 25 au away, 83% of the distance to Neptune. Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein is estimated to be about 1000 times more massive than a typical comet, making it arguably the largest comet discovered in modern times. It has an extremely elongated orbit, journeying inward from the distant Oort Cloud over millions of years. It is the most distant comet to be discovered on its incoming path. DECam was designed specifically for the DES and operated by the DOE and NSF between 2013 and 2019. DECam was funded by the DOE and was built and tested at DOE’s Fermilab. DES was tasked with mapping 300 million galaxies across a 5000-square-degree area of the night sky, but during its six years of observations it also observed many comets and trans-Neptunian objects passing through the surveyed field. The analysis of data from the DES is supported by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the DECam science archive is curated by the Community Science and Data Center (CSDC) at NSF’s NOIRLab. CTIO and CSDC are Programs of NOIRLab.

(WSYR-TV) – Astronomers have recently discovered what could be the largest comet in history.

The comet is known as the Bernardinelli-Bernstein comet, after its discoverers, Pedro Bernardinelli and Gary Bernstein of the University of Pennsylvania.

Its diameter is estimated at 62-124 miles wide, which scientists say is about 10 times the diameter of most comets!  For comparison, the distance between Syracuse, NY and Binghamton, NY is 73 miles. The distance between Syracuse, NY and Scranton, PA is 130 miles.

The journey of the comet began 3.7 trillion miles away from the sun. As of summer 2021, the comet was about 1.8 billion miles away from the sun. The comet originated from the Oort Cloud and it is the first comet, heading towards the sun, to be detected so far away.

It will take another 10 years for it to reach its closest point to the bright star. The distance will be a bit more than Saturn’s distance from the sun.

Bernardinelli says that the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, which houses the world’s largest digital camera ever made for optical astronomy, “will continuously measure Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein all the way to its perihelion in 2031, and probably find many, many others like it”.

It is not known how active and bright it will be in 2031 but it is predicted that skywatchers will need a large telescope to in order to see it for themselves.  

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