A massive comet — so large that scientists had previously mistaken it for a dwarf planet — is hurtling through space toward our solar system and is expected to arrive in about 10 years, new research revealed.
The Bernardinelli-Bernstein comet is an estimated to be 60-120 miles across, 1,000 times larger than a traditional comet, astronomers said when its discovery was first announced in June. It is arguably the largest comet discovered in modern times, scientists said.
The comet, however, poses no threat to the Earth. It will pass the sun at its closest in 2031 at a distance of 10.71 astronomical units (au), putting it just beyond the orbit of Saturn.
The comet’s journey began an estimated 40,000 au from the sun, deep in the mysterious Oort Cloud.
Scientists said that the comet could be the largest object from the Oort Cloud ever detected, and it is the first comet on an incoming path to be detected so far away.
Astronomers began studying the object six years ago, when no tail or “coma” typical to comets was detected. Continued research over the last three years revealed the presence of a tail, confirming the object as a comet.
Despite being so relatively close and so large, a telescope will still be necessary to see the object, scientists said. It is not believed to have ever been seen by humans before, predating our existence last time it flew by, however it will be making a much closer approach to the sun on this trip, an orbit analysis revealed.
“We have the privilege of having discovered perhaps the largest comet ever seen — or at least larger than any well-studied one — and caught it early enough for people to watch it evolve as it approaches and warms up,” said Gary Bernstein of the University of Pennsylvania, who discovered the object with colleague Pedro Bernardinelli.
“It has not visited the Solar System in more than 3 million years.”