The advantage of the time zone helped to notice the first signs of activity on a giant comet. Astronomers in New Zealand were the first to notice the coma, or zone of gas and dust, surrounding the mega-comet C / 2014 UN271, also known as Bernardinelli-Bernstein, which may be 1,000 times more massive than a regular comet. It may be the most massive comet on record.
The team that monitors images from the Las Cumbresa Observatory (LCO) is scattered around the world, and images from one of the 1m LCO telescopes located at the South African Astronomical Observatory were available June 23 at midnight EDT (0400 GMT). In New Zealand, it was noon.
"Other people were asleep," LCO team member Michelle Bannister of New Zealand's University of Canterbury recalled in a statement released Wednesday (July 14).
At first glance, however, she thought that the new images were unsuccessful, thanks to the ever-burning problem of satellites passing through the field of view of telescopes.
“In the first picture, the comet was obscured by a stripe from the satellite, and my heart skipped a beat,” she continued. "But then the other shots got sharp enough, and heck, here it is, definitely a pretty little blurred point, not as sharp as nearby stars."
What caught Bannister's attention was the presence of a frothy coma at an incredible distance from the Sun. When the photo was taken, Bernardinelli-Bernstein was about 19 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun. (One AC is the average distance between the Earth and the Sun - about 93 million miles, or 150 million kilometers). This is roughly double the orbital distance of Saturn from the Sun. Solar energy at this moment is only a small part of what we get it here on Earth.
However, the comet has a large mass that can be heated. Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein's huge nucleus has an estimated diameter of more than 62 miles (100 km), three times larger than the nucleus of the next largest comet known, Comet Hale-Bopp, the famous comet that flew past Earth in 1998.
Bernardinelli-Bernstein's closest convergence with the Sun will occur beyond Saturn in January 2031, but astronomers have a decade to plan for this convergence. Telescopes around the world and in space, as well as any spacecraft in the vicinity, will watch the comet to learn as much as possible about its composition and history.