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.
Identified as a behemoth comet, C/2014 UN271 has an estimated diameter of approximately 80 miles, making it larger than the U.S. state of Rhode Island. The nucleus is about 50 times larger than that found at the heart of most known comets. Its mass is estimated to be 500 trillion tons, a hundred thousand times bigger than the mass of a typical comet.
It is headed toward Earth at 22,000 miles per hour from the edge of the solar system.
“But don’t worry: the comet won’t come any closer to Earth than Saturn,” NASA tweeted. The space agency says the comet will never get closer than 1 billion miles away from the sun, which won’t be until the year 2031.
Big news! No. Really. @NASAHubble confirmed the largest comet ever. Its nucleus is bigger than Rhode Island.
— NASA (@NASA) April 12, 2022
The comet was discovered by astronomers Pedro Bernardinelli and Gary Bernstein in archival images from the Dark Energy Survey at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. It has been intensively studied by ground and space-based telescopes since its discovery.
“This is an amazing object, given how active it is when it’s still so far from the Sun,” said the paper’s lead author Man-To Hui of the Macau University of Science and Technology, Taipa Macau. “We guessed the comet might be pretty big, but we needed the best data to confirm this.” Macau’s team used Hubble to take five photos of the comet in January.
The previous record holder is comet C/2002 VQ94, with a nucleus estimated to be 60 miles across. It was discovered in 2002 by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) project.