A comet with a nucleus 50 times larger than normal is heading close to Earth at 35,000 kilometers per hour.
NASA’s Hubble Telescope has determined that the comet’s icy nucleus has a mass of around 500 billion tonnes and is 137 km across, larger than the US state of Rhode Island.
But do not worry. The closest it will get is 1.6 billion kilometers from the Sun, and that won’t be until 2031.
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It was first seen in 2010, but only now has Hubble been able to confirm its existence.
And it’s bigger than any comet astronomers have seen before.
“We always suspected this comet had to be big because it’s so bright at such a great distance,” said David Jewitt, a professor of planetary science and astronomy at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). “Now we confirm that it is.”
NASA, which describes the icy ball as a giant “rushing in this direction,” has named it Bernardinelli-Bernstein after its discovery by astronomers Pedro Bernardinelli and Gary Bernstein.
They first saw it while working at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile more than a decade ago when it was more than 4.8 billion kilometers from the Sun.
NASA describes comets as icy “Lego blocks,” leftover from the early days of planet building.
“They were unceremoniously ejected from the Solar System in a game of gravitational pinball between the massive outer planets,” it said in a statement.
“The ejected comets settled in the Oort Cloud, a vast reservoir of distant comets that surround the Solar System.”
Man-To Hui, from the Macau University of Science and Technology, described the comet as “an amazing object”, adding: “We assumed that the comet could be quite large, but we needed the best data to confirm it.”
Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein has been following an elliptical orbit for 3 billion years, taking it as far from the Sun as about half a light-year.
The comet is now less than 3.2 billion kilometers from the Sun, falling nearly perpendicular to the plane of our Solar System.