It’s good to remember how little we know about the outer solar system. Humans only really began observing it within the past 100 years, and given the constraints on that observations there are still plenty of things we don’t know about. For example, researchers recently found an object almost the size of a dwarf planet that is inbound to the inner solar system, with an estimated orbital period of over 2 million years, more than six the lifetime of the modern human species.
The object, known as 2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein), was originally observed in 2014 but first noted on June 19th, 2021 by Pedro Bernardelli and Gary Bernstein, and now has its own Wikipedia page. The data on the object was collected by the Dark Energy Survey over the course of 4 years, but now new observing platforms are being brought to bear on this novel object.
With those additional observational platforms come additional insights. Right now, 2014 UN271 is expected to reach its perihelion just outside the orbit of Saturn before returning to the depths of the Oort cloud for another spin around the sun. Its size is estimated to be between 100 and 370 km wide, making it possibly the biggest Oort cloud object ever observed.
Having already passed Neptune’s orbit, 2014 UN271 is well on its journey into the inner solar system. As it draws closer to the sun, astronomers expect it to get the coma and tail characteristic of comets, as its surface starts to evaporate in the heat. Unfortunately, it likely won’t be bright enough to present a spectacular display like other well known comets.
But it will be closely observed now that its presence is more widely known. There is already talk of potentially sending a mission to rendezvous with it when it reaches its perihelion point in 2031. Whatever resources are eventually brought to bear on it, its mere existence will serve as an important reminder of how little we know about what’s out there.
SlashGear – 2014 UN271: Death Star sized object headed for our Solar System
NASA – C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein)
Sky & Telescope – Giant Oort Cloud Comet Lights Up In The Outer Solar System
UT – What is the Oort Cloud?
Artist’s conception of a Kuiper belt object.
Credit – NASA / ESA / G. Bacon (STScI)