Activity Observed on Newly Discovered Visitor to the Outer Edges of Our Solar System

Comet C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein), as seen in a synthetic color composite image made with the Las Cumbres Observatory 1-meter telescope at Sutherland, South Africa, on 22 June 2021. The diffuse cloud is the comet’s coma. Credit: LOOK/LCO

A newly discovered visitor to the outer edges of our Solar System has been shown to be the largest known comet ever, thanks to the rapid response telescopes of Las Cumbres Observatory. The object, which is named Comet C/2014 UN271 Bernardinelli-Bernstein after its two discoverers, was first announced on Saturday, June 19th, 2021. C/2014 UN271 was found by reprocessing four years of data from the Dark Energy Survey, which was carried out using the 4-m Blanco telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile between 2013 and 2019.

At the time of the announcement, there was no indication that this was an active world. Anticipation was immediately high among astronomers. C/2014 UN271 was inbound from the cold outer reaches of the Solar System, so rapid imaging was needed to find out: when would the big new-found world start to show a comet’s tail?

Las Cumbres Observatory was quickly able to determine whether the object had become an active comet in the three years since it was first seen by the Dark Energy Survey. “Since the new object was far in the south and quite faint, we knew there wouldn’t be many other telescopes that could observe it,” says Dr. Tim Lister, Staff Scientist at Las Cumbres Observatory (LCO). “Fortunately LCO has a network of robotic telescopes across the world, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere, and we were able to quickly get images from the LCO telescopes in South Africa,” explained Tim Lister.

An orbital diagram showing the path of Comet C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein) through the Solar System. The comets’ path is shown in gray when it is below the plane of the planets and in bold white when it is above the plane. Credit: NASA

The images from one of LCO’s 1-meter telescopes hosted at the South African Astronomical Observatory, came in around 9pm PDT on Monday night June 22. Astronomers in New Zealand who are members of the LCO Outbursting Objects Key (LOOK) Project were the first to notice the new comet.

“Since we’re a team based all around the world, it just happened that it was my afternoon, while the other folks were asleep. The first image had the comet obscured by a satellite streak and my heart sank. But then the others were clear enough and gosh: there it was, definitely a beautiful little fuzzy dot, not at all crisp like its neighboring stars!” said Dr. Michele Bannister at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury. Analysis of the LCO images showed a fuzzy coma around the object, indicating that it was active and was indeed a comet, even though it is still out at a remarkable distance of more than 1,800,000,000 miles, more than double Saturn’s distance from the Sun.

The comet is estimated to be over 100km in diameter, which is more than three times the size of the next biggest comet nucleus we know, Comet Hale-Bopp, which was discovered in 1995. This comet is not expected to become naked-eye bright: it will remain a telescopic object because its closest distance to the Sun will still be beyond Saturn. Since Comet C/2014 UN271 was discovered so far out, astronomers will have over a decade to study it. It will reach its closest approach to the Sun in January of 2031. A recent article in the New York Times about the comet details its predicted travel.

Thus Tim Lister and the other astronomers of the LOOK Project will have plenty of time to use the telescopes of Las Cumbres Observatory to study C/2014 UN271. The LOOK Project is continuing to observe the behavior of a large number of comets and how their activity evolves as they come closer towards the Sun. The scientists are also using the rapid response capability of LCO to get observations very quickly when a comet goes into an outburst.

“There are now a large number of surveys, such as the Zwicky Transient Facility and the upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory, that are monitoring parts of the sky every night. These surveys can provide alerts if one of the comets changes brightness suddenly and then we can trigger the robotic telescopes of LCO to get us more detailed data and a longer look at the changing comet while the survey moves onto other areas of the sky,” explains Tim Lister. “The robotic telescopes and sophisticated software of LCO allow us to get images of a new event within 15 minutes of an alert. This lets us really study these outbursts as they evolve.”

AstronomyCometLas Cumbres ObservatoryPopular
Comments ( 37 )
Add Comment
  • Bibhutibhusan Pateĺ

    The trajectory of the comet C/2014UN271 is mystic as not governed by sole gravitation of the sun.This is mere coincidental, as found from the telescope studing dark matter by chance.

  • Bibhutibhusan Patel

    The trajectory of comet C/2⁰14 UN271 is not prefixed and unpredictable.As this is found out by the telescopes in study of dark matter.

  • MuTru

    Really would appreciate it if SCIENCE tech daily would delete any comment that tries to attach supernatural explanations to natural phenomena. Pretty please?

    • Shawn M

      You know, most of the science that we know today originated from a whacko with a theory that was considered heresy at the time. Might want to try and be a little more open minded about things we do not understand there brother.

  • Frosted Flake

    Big thing. Independant. Goes around the bend. Get in the way, POW.

    It’s Moby Dick.

  • Iwan Griffiths

    This object is moving according to the laws of physics and is nothing to do with the supernatural, magic, astrology or any other loony tunes notions. Its path can be predicted with exquisite precision both now and long into the future.

  • Incredulous

    MuTru – They invite those sorts of comments with these clickbait-y headlines. “Activity observed on,” “visitor,” is language easily suggestive of UFOs.
    The article would surely draw less of these people if it was titled, say, “Outgassing detected for first time in newly discovered comet.”

  • Nonymous

    Not everything in the universe or our galaxy is on the same plane or is bound by our suns gravity. Or else all stars would be on the equator.

  • Centauri4

    Here is another thought: If space explorers can carry a decent sized telescope to Mars or deploy it on a moon of Mars before 2031, then astronomers could get an even better look at this positively HUGE comet! Well, depending on the orbit of Mars in 2031 and whether it will be closer or farther away from Saturn as the comet swings past and begins the journey back into the frigid distance from whence it came.

  • Kenneth Callahan

    I’ve been highly interested in this outer space travel and thee amazing construction that have gone into putting the crafts into space and landing on the moon and back again. Now viewing and reading the articles has sparked my interest to the space again, THXs and I will be looking into space again and knowing more of the Creator and the best interest and the dreams that is yet to come, and made possible by looking at my Email address for the video as well beautiful vision center to visit and I am talking about outside the United States to travel and look into that magnificent wonderful SKY and TO WISH APONE A BRAND NEW STAR AND A BIRTH OF MANY MANY MORE GREAT MEMORIES YET TO COME…

  • ng0grboy sally

    The comet is going to break up and send cometoids towards earth..were toast..hopefully they hit trumps home and kill him and his family

    • Joseph

      Your wish is my command, said the comet.

    • ScareBear

      I can’t imagine allowing a politician to live rent free in your head that you have to make a comment on a science article that wishes harm on them and their family. There are politicians I can’t stand, however, I’m not letting them live rent free in my head, nor will I wish them ill. How about being an adult and just move on, and keep the political stuff to Twitter or a politics page.

  • Mike

    Obviously this is an alien mothership coming to take our souls.

  • Abraham Ascendford

    We have a little more than 9 years to rig up a package to deliver to rendezvous point near Saturn. A sensor suite to monitor heavens, an explorer suite to analyze comet itself, and as many radio repeaters as we can to mark orbit and carry signal.

  • Riley Long

    Due to SciTecDaily’s determination to turn itself into another “National Enquirer” (see this article’s headline) our class will part ways with them.The internet is rapidly becoming the place to NOT get reliable information.

  • No body no problem

    It’s not a visitor and it’s not in the outer fringes of the Sol system. It’s been here. It will be here for a very long time. And it’s well within the orbits of the outer planets. So the headline is just wrong right off the bat. What else is wrong in the article?

  • Tirin

    I bet the fanatical religious crowd is taking about this and probably come up with weird ideas about this comet. 🤣

  • Theresa

    Agreed. I come here to get science and facts, not religious pseudoscience and other nonsense. Please delete comments and/or ban the folks only involved in religion, religious varification, and/or other woowoo. There should be no place for any of that here.

  • Chris

    I would love this to be our next moonshot goal: Capture this comet! Could someone please give me an estimate of how much force would need to be applied to bring this comet into an elliptical orbit with our solar system? (And yes, I appreciate how difficult a task this would be, and the current limitations of the data. *Estimate*)

    • Chris

      Nevermind. It is in an elliptical orbit, being an Oort Cloud object. Since this one won’t be getting away, we have much more accessible targets of interest.

  • Travis Case

    Little did u know there is a God who made matter into space its in the Holy Bible

  • tauno sepp

    What is going on?

  • tauno sepp

    This comments doesn’t make any sense unless…

  • James Krause

    Nice discovery!

  • Joseph Martin

    I really wish STD would stop using click-bait headlines. Look at all the religious screwballs it has attracted in these comments. Science reporting should not depend on ad revenue generated by nutjob clicks.

  • Kleo

    Click bait. I’ll never click again. Im boycotting.

  • YourWrong

    God Almighty is creator of all…
    All knees shall bow to him.. Laugh now, cry later, your space stories are lies. The moon is plasma, but cognitive dissonance rules all the conditioned brain washed people, who cannot make thier own decisions without having to be prooven by soneone else’s mafe up ‘scientific’ theories..m. God Almighty help us all, ireesamamloaibtmhfpfatwamloams.

  • Cropduster

    Your all nuts! Shut up and live your measly little lives and wait to become food!

    • Boy

      Och eats comet dust

  • Hydrotilling

    Let’s direct it to Mars smash into the planet and maybe we can kickstart life there with all that water …

    • Boy

      Why???

      • Boy

        Rust disintegrates

  • H.A.

    Bruce Willis has time to train for the mission that will save us.

  • Jimmi Brewer

    Pure physics, not mystic !

  • Jose Cotto

    God is and always been in control… No worries.

  • Bob

    OOOH OOOH WE SHOULD START A CULT