A massive space rock is hurtling towards the inner solar system from deep space. The comet moving in the direction of the Sun isn’t a big thing because it’s common. But this one, called 2014 UN271, is different from others for a couple of reasons.
First is its size, which is around 200 km, putting it between a giant comet and a dwarf planet. Compared this with the recent large and bright comet Hale-Bopp was only 40 km in size.
Biggest comet ever seen
If the estimated size of 2014 UN271 is correct, it might be the biggest comet ever spotted. However, it’s still uncertain at the moment. It’s possible that part of the width in early observations could be a tail and that the nucleus is smaller than it appears to astronomers.
Astrophysicist Pedro Bernardinelli of the University of Pennsylvania has discovered the comet, and the pixilated image seems tail-less. Besides, the comet has a very long orbital path that originates 2 trillion km from the Sun at the very edge of our solar system.
“From that distance the sun’s gravity is so weak a whisper could push this thing into interstellar space,” writes astronomer Phil Plait.
Not a threat to Earth
Astronomer T. Marshall Eubanks estimates it will make its closest approach to the Sun within just 10 years, on January 28, 2031. This will enable observatories several years to observe the comet. The ESA Comer Interceptor mission that is slated for a 2029 launch, has confirmed it won’t be able to reach 2014 UN271.
While the comet is huge, it won’t be coming close to our planet, as many comets did in the last few decades. However, it might be visible through a good telescope, we might see many images and new data in the coming years.
For comets and asteroids that are hurtling towards the Earth, NASA might soon build a telescope that can detect asteroids and comets that are a potential threat. The space telescope is called the Near-Earth Object Surveyor, or NEO Surveyor. It is a part of the space agency’s growing interest in planetary defense.