It is good to remember how little we know about the outer solar system. Humans have only really begun to observe them in the last 100 years, and given the limitations of those observations, there are still many things we do not know about. For example, researchers recently found an object almost the size of a dwarf planet invading 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 was first noted on June 19, 2021 by Pedro Bernardelli and Gary Bernstein and now has its own Wikipedia page. The data on the object were collected by the Dark Energy Survey over a period of 4 years, but new observation platforms are now being used on this novel object.
UT video via the Oort cloud.
With these additional observation platforms, additional insights come. Currently, UN271 is expected to reach perihelion just outside of Saturn’s orbit in 2014 before returning to the depths of the Oort Cloud for another rotation around the Sun. Its size is estimated to be 100 to 370 km, making it possibly the largest Oort cloud object ever observed.
After the UN271 has already passed the orbit of Neptune, it is well on its way to the inner solar system in 2014. As it nears the Sun, astronomers expect it to get the coma and tail characteristic of comets as its surface begins to evaporate in the heat. Unfortunately, it will likely not be bright enough to present a spectacular display like other well-known comets.
In 2014, UN271 could also be viewed as a Kuiper belt object, which is discussed in this UT video.
But it is being watched closely now that its presence is well known. There is already talk of possibly sending a mission to rendezvous with him when he reaches his perihelion point in 2031. Whatever resources are used for it, its very existence will serve as an important reminder of how little we know about what is out there.
SlashGear – 2014 UN271: Object the size of a death star on its way to our solar system
NASA – C / 2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein)
Sky & Telescope – Huge Oort cloud comet shines in the outer solar system
UT – What is the Oort Cloud?
Artistic conception of a Kuiper belt object.
Credit – NASA / ESA / G. Bacon (STScI)