Seven years ago, a pair of scientists scouring high-resolution images of space caught fleeting glimpses of a bright round object peeking from a vast cloud of icy objects more than two billion miles from Earth.
As if that whole scene wasn’t exciting enough, the object appeared to be a huge comet. Thought to be between 60 and 100 miles wide, it was the biggest comet a human being had ever witnessed. And it seemed to be heading toward us, very loosely speaking.
Last month the discoverers of the giant object—University of Pennsylvania astronomers Gary Bernstein and Pedro Bernardinelli—combined their earlier data with fresh sightings of the distant object this summer and confirmed their suspicions.
Yep, it’s a megacomet. “The nearly spherical cow of comets,” they quipped in the title of their paper, which they submitted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters on Sept. 23. And the pair have also learned the comet’s trajectory has it swinging between Uranus and Saturn in 2031.
Besides setting up an astronomically great joke, the Bernardinelli-Bernstein comet is a very rare and unique prize for any scientist trying to piece together the history of the solar system. “In essence, it’s a time machine,” Amy Mainzer, an astronomer and comet expert at the University of Arizona, told The Daily Beast. The comet’s journey is the opportunity of a lifetime for scientists anxious to learn about the conditions and building blocks of the solar system that one day led to Earth and all its life.
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