Astronomers in New Zealand have detected the first activity on the giant C/2014 UN271, possibly the largest comet discovered in recorded history.
Experts saw signs of gas and dust spreading on June 22, the first time they had seen an active comet since it was first observed by the Dark Energy Survey.
Image C/2014 shows UN271 at a distance of about 19 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun.
Due to the size of the comet’s nucleus, which is believed to be the largest since the discovery of Comet Hale-Bopp in 1995, it has a large mass to heat up.
The object was first announced on June 19, 2021, but was initially found after experts reprocessed data from the Dark Energy Survey between 2014 and 2018.
The giant object, which is 62 to 230 miles wide and the size of a small dwarf planet, can be nearly 1,000 times the size of an ordinary comet.
It may also be the largest comet found in recorded history, although some have suggested that Comet Sarabat, which is more than 513,000 miles across, is larger.
The image was taken by the Las Cumbres Telescopes (LCO) hosted by the Astronomical Observatory in South Africa and was available on June 23 at midnight EST.
The activity was discovered in large part because the astronomers were in the right time zone at the right time.
Dr Michelle Bannister, from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, said: statement: “The first image was obscuring the comet with the satellite line. But then, there was, surely a beautiful little dot of mist, not at all as clear as the stars next to it!”
However, astronomers say, “it will still be a telescopic object because its closest distance from the sun will still be after Saturn.”
And in 2031, scientists expect C/2014 UN271 to be at the same distance from the Sun as Saturn, which will be a close approach to Earth for the first time in about 600,000 years.
The data shows that the object traveled seven AU in the past year alone, putting it within 10.9 AU of the sun by 2031.
The statement added that LCO has created a projected timeline for viewing C/2014 UN271, giving its global network of telescopes a “rapid response” to a new event on the comet “within 15 minutes of alert.”
Tim Lister, staff scientist at LCO, said there are other global projects besides the LCO Outbursting Objects Key (LOOK) project that closely monitors C/2014 UN271.
These surveys can provide alerts if a comet suddenly changes brightness, so we can operate the LCO’s robotic telescopes to provide us with more detailed data and a longer look at the changing comet as the survey moves to other regions of the sky.
Source: Daily Mail