The biggest comet ever detected, Bernardinelli-Bernstein, is heading towards our solar system.
The comet is located 29 astronomical units (AU) – 29 times the distance between Earth and the Sun – and is therefore expected to arrive in about a decade, according to new research published on the arXiv.org preprint server.
Right now, the 93-mile-wide comet is located in the Oort Cloud, a vast array of icy mountain-sized rocks, but a glowing tail or “coma” behind it means it’s approaching the warmer inner solar system. .
Fortunately, the giant boulder does not pose a threat to the planet and will likely pass through the planet outside of Saturn’s orbit, 10.97 AU from the sun. This means humans won’t be able to see the comet without using equipment, like telescopes, but it’s much closer than the comet’s more recent approach.
The last time Bernardinelli-Bernstein returned, 3.5 million years ago, it came within 18 AU of our Sun, before moving away 40,000 AU.
“We conclude that BB is a ‘new’ comet in the sense that there is no evidence of [a] previous approach closer to 18 AU, ”the researchers wrote, quoted in LiveScience.
The comet was first spotted 4 billion kilometers from our solar system in 2014, roughly the same distance as Neptune.
“My phone kept ringing, I did not expect the reception of the [scientific] community gave to the discovery, ”Pedro Bernardinelli, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, told National Geographic.
The study of the comet is crucial for scientists to understand the ancient history of the solar system, the scientists said, and could reveal more about the mysterious Oort Cloud.
While Bernardinelli-Bernstein is almost certainly not harmful to Earth, space agencies are making contingency plans for more dangerous threats from space.
Chinese researchers want to send 23 Long March 5 rockets from the country to train to deflect asteroids from Earth. They will target asteroid Bennu, which will be within 7.5 million kilometers of Earth’s orbit with a one in 2,700 chance of hitting the planet between 2175 and 2199.
NASA, meanwhile, is targeting a rock called Didymos – the size of the Great Pyramid of Egypt – by deliberately crushing a spaceship there in an attempt to alter its movement in space.