Comet the Size of a Small Planet Barreling Through Our Solar System, But Don’t Break Out Those Doomsday Signs Just Yet

by John Jamison

We still have another 40 years or so until Halley’s Comet finally returns. So how about something 30 times bigger on a tighter schedule? The Bernardinelli-Bernstein comet fits the bill. It’s one of the largest ever discovered. In roughly 10 years, it will make a near pass by Earth.

It sounds like the beginning of an apocalypse movie, granted. But before we start freaking out, “near” is relative. According to National Geographic, the comet’s closest proximity to the Earth will come in early 2031 at a distance of roughly 1 billion miles. That puts it on par with Saturn’s distance from the sun. Though, at an estimated 120-miles across, the comet is still passing a little too close for comfort.

Astronomers are confident that the object poses no threat to our planet, however. Fortunate, considering the Bernardinelli-Bernstein’s massive size for an object originating from the Oort Cloud’s far reaches.

Astronomers discovered the comet in 2014 at a distance of roughly 2.7 billion miles away, per National Geographic. They identified it further out than any other comet on record. The distance is important because astronomers have plenty of time to observe the object as it approaches.

The Bernardinelli-Bernstein Comet’s Orbit is So Big That Humans Weren’t Around Last Time It Showed Up

When it finally does arrive, stargazers can expect it to remain visible with the help of telescopes for decades. That’s good news for researchers. National Geographic claims that the last time this comet made an appearance was more than 3 million years ago. So we’ll be setting our sights on something no human has ever seen before.

The discovery is no small thing in the world of astronomy. While humans have observed plenty of comets before, there is no telling what secrets this giant might be hiding. The comet’s co-discoverers, Pedro Bernardinelli and Gary Bernstein, knew that they were onto something when they found the comet. Though it took years to confirm what exactly the object was.

“My phone didn’t stop ringing—I wasn’t expecting the reception the [scientific] community gave to the discovery. Overall, it’s been pretty overwhelming,” said Bernardinelli of the University of Washington.

The two men made the discovery as Bernardinelli was in the middle of his Ph.D. research. Having a comet named after you for something you did before completing your doctorate? Pretty impressive work.

“We have the privilege of having discovered perhaps the largest comet ever seen — or at least larger than any well-studied one — and caught it early enough for people to watch it evolve as it approaches and warms up. It has not visited the Solar System in more than 3 million years,” said University of Pennsylvania professor Gary Bernstein, who discovered the massive comet alongside Pedro Bernardinelli.