(Bloomberg) — NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has confirmed the size of the largest comet nucleus ever seen by astronomers, more than a decade after it was first identified in 2010.
Comet C/2014 UN271 has been identified as a giant comet, with an estimated diameter of about 80 miles, making it larger than the US state of Rhode Island. The nucleus is about 50 times larger than that at the core of most known comets. Its mass is estimated at 500 trillion tons, which is a hundred thousand times greater than the mass of a typical comet.
It is heading toward Earth at 22,000 miles per hour from the edge of the solar system.
“But don’t worry: the comet won’t get any closer to Earth than Saturn,” NASA wrote on Twitter. The space agency says the comet will never get closer than a billion miles from the sun, which won’t come close until 2031.
The comet was discovered by astronomers Pedro Bernardinelli and Gary Bernstein in archival images from the Dark Energy Survey at Cerro Tololo International Observatory in Chile. It has been extensively studied by ground and space telescopes since its discovery.
“This is an amazing thing, given how active it is when it’s still far from the sun,” said lead author of the paper Man Tu Hui of Macau University of Science and Technology, Taipa Macau. “We thought the comet might be very large, but we needed the best data to confirm that.” The Macau team used Hubble to take five pictures of the comet in January.
The previous record holder is Comet C/2002 VQ94, with a core estimated at 60 miles. It was discovered in 2002 by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research Project (LINEAR).
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