Giant comet from the Oort cloud approaches the inner Solar System

He’s gigantic and on his way. The largest and most massive comet ever discovered is also a kind of “time machine” for scientists, as it is an immaculate object. This means that it will bring rich information about the farthest reaches of the Solar System, so it will be an unmissable opportunity for astronomers to learn more about our “cosmic backyard.”

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  • Although it’s heading our way, don’t worry — comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein won’t get close enough to threaten our planet. Still, it will pass close enough to attract the attention of any astronomer, from the most “high-profile” to the amateur. After all, this frozen colossus comes straight from the Oort Cloud, a region so far from the Sun that astronomers cannot observe it.

    The Oort Cloud is a spherical region around the full Solar System of mysteries, because nothing is known about the composition and nature of its objects. The light from our star does not reach this area, so it has never been observed before. But it also means that solar radiation hasn’t changed much over the past 4.6 billion years — the age of the Sun.

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    The person who defined the Bernardinelli-Bernstein as “time machine” was Amy Mainzer, astronomer and specialist in comets at the University of Arizona. The metaphor may seem like an exaggeration, but it’s as if astronomers could actually look back and see what the first millennia of the Solar System were like. It’s understandable that scientists are eager to gather whatever information they can about the comet.

    “Anatomy” of the Solar System, including the Oort cloud (Image: Reproduction/NASA/JPL-Caltech)

    Models of the “megacomet’s” orbit indicate that its last closest pass to the planets was about 5 million years ago. At the time, it didn’t even get close to Uranus—it stayed far enough from the Sun to keep its chemistry unaffected by radiation. Another advantage is its unusual size (it has 97 km to 200 km in diameter), according to estimates, which is equivalent to 10 times the diameter of most known comets. These dimensions will make it easier to see when it is closer to Saturn and will help it not to split like smaller comets.

    These size estimates are based on the amount of sunlight that the object reflects, which is possible to observe thanks to its relatively close position. His adventure into the inner Solar System began at a distance of more than 20 a thousand astronomical units away from the Sun (equivalent to 6 trillion km), but now it is already about astronomical units, according to June observations. The comet’s orbit is perpendicular to the plane of the Solar System and will reach its closest point to the Sun at 2022.

    When the comet gets close enough to the Sun, it will start to release huge amounts of particles and will gain the so characteristic comet tail. Then astronomers can tell what the composition of its surface dust is to produce that distinct comet tail. Bernardinelli-Bernstein may contain a lot of carbon, but perhaps not as much nitrogen, according to Bernstein himself, one of the astronomers who discovered the object.

    Illustration of the comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein (Image: Reproduction/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva)

    It will still take a decade for the megacomet to make its closest approach, before returning to “hiding” in the darkest places in the Solar System. This long wait has advantages and disadvantages — on the one hand, astronomers will have to control anxiety before aiming their lens at the “time machine”; on the other hand, there will be enough time for the Vera C. Rubin observatory to go into operation.

    Don’t expect, however, that NASA or some other space agency will build a probe to go to the comet. There are only ten years left before the comet is close to Saturn, which is 1.4 billion km from Earth. The Cassini spacecraft, for example, took almost seven years to reach this planet, but the first stages of its development began in the decade of 660.

    Anyway, Vera Rubin’s instruments will not only be able to capture many details of the Bernardinelli-Bernstein, but will also likely encounter many other objects like it. This should help astronomers more accurately determine the characteristics of objects in the Oort Cloud, without relying on a single sample. Perhaps, in this way, some agency or private space company has a mission planned for one of these other “brothers” of the Bernardinelli-Bernstein?

    Source: Daily Beast

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