Scientists Discover Comet Twice the Size of Rhode Island

Have you ever thought about how big comets can get? In 2014, the Hubble Space Telescope discovered the largest known comet in our solar system, Bernardinelli-Bernstein.

Comets are sets of rocks and ice that orbit the Sun. These are often enveloped in clouds of gas and dust and are made from frozen chemicals that come off of other comets. As they pass by the Sun, the heat makes the comets release gas, which produce a visible atmosphere that can take the form of a tail. After the 2014 discovery of Bernardinelli-Bernstein, scientists studying its nucleus concluded that it receives only three percent of the light that hits it, making it seem “blacker than coal” according to David Jewitt, an astronomer at the University of California, Los Angeles.

At that time, new data showed the discovery of Bernardinelli-Bernstein, or C/2014 UN271. According to Jewitt and his colleagues, the new images from the Hubble Space Telescope show that “the heart” of this comet is around 120 kilometers (75 miles) across. This is twice as wide as Rhode Island. While conducting studies for comets, astronomers try to figure out the size and location of the icy bodies. In order to compare comet sizes, astronomers focus on their icy cores or nuclei.

Bernardinelli-Bernstein is larger than all known comets so far. Hale-Bopp, a comet which flew by Earth in 1997 is only around 60 kilometers wide, making Bernardinelli-Bernstein twice as big. Bernardinelli-Bernstein will never be visible from Earth to the naked eye due to the fact that it is around 3 billion kilometers (1.86 billion miles) away from Earth. Its closest approach will be in 2031, which will be 1.6 billion kilometers (1 billion miles) away from the sun.

Jewitt concludes that there might be tens of thousands of smaller unidentified comets circling the sun. The discovery of Bernardinelli-Bernstein will surely lead us to many more hidden objects in our vast yet mysterious solar system.