A team of New Zealand astronomers have detected, for the first time, activity in the megacomet C / 2014 UN271, perhaps the most massive comet discovered in human history. The experts saw signs of coma, the zone of spread of the gas and dust, marking the first time they saw it as an active comet since it was first detected by the Dark Energy Survey.
Located at a distance of approximately 19 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun, the comet is between 100 and 300 kilometers wide, making it almost the size of a small dwarf planet. Given the size of the comet’s nucleus, which is believed to be the largest since Comet Hale-Bopp was discovered in 1995, it has a lot of mass to heat. It is thousands of times more massive than any ordinary comet.
The core comes from the confines of the solar system
The equipment that monitors the images captured by the Las Cumbres Observatory (LCO) is spread all over the world, and images from one of LCO’s 1-meter telescopes housed at the South African Astronomical Observatory became available on June 23 at midnight. At first glance, they thought that the new images presented blurred vision due to an error, thanks to the ever-present problem of satellites passing through the field of view of telescopes. But … then they realized that it was clear enough: there was activity in the images.
“The first image had the comet obscured by a satellite line and my heart sank. But then the others were clear enough and my goodness: there it was, definitely a beautiful little fuzzy dot, nothing sharp like its neighboring stars! “Explains Michele Bannister, an astronomer at the University of Canterbury, excited by the find.
“Since the new object was far to the south and was quite faint, we knew there wouldn’t be many other telescopes that could observe it,” commented Tim Lister, an astronomer at the Las Cumbres Observatory. “Fortunately, the Las Cumbres Observatory has a network of robotic telescopes around the world, particularly in the southern hemisphere, and we were able to quickly obtain images from the telescopes at the Las Cumbres Observatory in South Africa“.