A new visitor is swinging by the solar system: a never-before-observed comet that hails from the Oort Cloud. This alien object was just designated as a comet Wednesday (June 23), only a week after astronomers first observed it as a tiny, moving dot in archival images from the Dark Energy Camera at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.
The comet is now known as Comet C/2014 UN271, or Bernardinelli-Bernstein after its discoverers, University of Pennsylvania graduate student Pedro Bernardinelli and astronomer Gary Bernstein. The comet, which may be an impressive 62 miles (100 kilometers) wide, is 20 times the distance from Earth to the sun away, heading toward our blue dot.
It will reach its closest point to the sun in its orbit on Jan. 23, 2031, when it will be just beyond the orbit of Saturn, or about 10.95 times the distance between Earth and the sun. Related: The 12 strangest objects in the universe “We will have practically 20 years to study it,
” said Peter Vereš, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics Harvard & Smithsonian and at the Minor Planet Center, which identifies and computes orbits for new comets, minor planets and other far-flung rocky bodies.
That’s an exciting opportunity, he said, because the comet is likely a near-pristine object from the Oort Cloud, a field of icy, rocky debris that likely surrounds the solar system like a crunchy shell.