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BAN #335: When your old family friend discovers an enormous comet
28 June 2021 Issue #335
[The planetary nebula M 2-9, winds from a dying star. Credit: NASA / ESA / Hubble Legacy Archive / Judy Schmidt]
What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI
[Artwork depicting a Kuiper Belt Object far beyond Neptune. From Tuesday’s article. Credit: ASA/ESA/G. Bacon (STScI)]
Hey! I write a big ol’ slew of — IIDSSM — interesting and cool articles every weekday on my blog about cool and interesting science. Click these links! Be more interesting and cool!
Monday 21 June, 2021: What happened to this galaxy’s dark matter?
Tuesday 22 June, 2021: Don’t panic! But a gigantic comet is currently inbound toward the Sun
Wednesday 23 June, 2021: The Red Sky Paradox: Why do we orbit a star like the Sun instead of a red dwarf?
Thursday 24 June, 2021: New evidence that parts of Venus’ crust may be squishy
Friday 25 June, 2021: How many alien planets can see Earth? More than we first thought
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A brief synopsis of some interesting astronomy/science news
Readers of my blog — y’all check it every weekday, right? RIGHT? — already saw my write-up of the ENORMOUS comet heading toward the Sun from way, way beyond Neptune. Called 2014 UN271, it may be as much as 200 kilometers wide, far larger than any other body ever seen approaching the inner solar system from this far out. Its orbit takes it from just outside the orbit of Saturn to something like 1/5th of a light year away!
This object is certainly made of rock and ice, and at the time I reported there was no evidence of cometary activity. However, that’s changed, and it’s been reported that deep images do in fact show that the solid nucleus of the object appears to be surrounded by gas and dust, material ejected from the surface as it’s warmed (ever so slightly, given that it’s 3 billion km out) by the Sun. The images I’ve seen posted to Twitter seem to show activity, but it’s hard to be certain. I’m sure more and better images will turn up.
I also said in my article that I wondered if the ESA Comet Interceptor mission could rendezvous with it, but that’s not to be. They tweeted about it, saying that it’s too far for them to reach. Ah well.
But there’s more. The object was given an official name by the IAU Minor Planet Center, so it is now called C/2014 UN 271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein).
The name is basically info about the discovery encoded into lingo. The C means it’s a comet with an open orbit (this definition is a bit fuzzy in my opinion, but it kinda sorta means one with an orbital period longer than 200 years) and 2014 is the year of the earliest known observations. UN 271 is a complicated code that gives the time of year the comet was first seen.
But the human names at the end are worth a short story here. Pedro Bernardinelli works on looking for outer solar system objects with the Dark Energy Survey, the telescope that took the discovery images. Gary Bernstein was the co-discoverer. I don’t know Pedro, but I do know Gary.
But not because he’s an astronomer. The Bernsteins were close family friends when I was a kid. They lived in the ‘burbs of Washington DC as I did. The parents were very close with my parents, and Gary was friends with my older brother. It’s a coincidence that he and I both grew up to be astronomers.
It gets weirder. The Bernsteins and my family were both members of the Olam Tikvah congregation in northern Virginia. As it happens, another family was also a member: the Fruchters, including their son Andrew.
And yup: Andrew’s an astronomer as well. He studies gamma-ray bursts, and in fact in 1999 a bright burst went off, and Andrew got rapid Hubble images of it using STIS, the camera I was working on at the time! I processed the images unofficially just to fool around with them at the time, and IIRC sent him results, which were very close to his. But anyway, it’s all very funny to me.
Gary once commented to me about the odds of having three folks from the same synagogue all becoming professional astronomers. Of course coincidence is a big part, since astronomers are a tiny fraction of the general population. Emphasis on education is a long-time Jewish tradition though, which makes me wonder how many professional astronomers are Jewish? Perhaps that’s already above the average for the general population, skewing the odds. Beats me.
I don’t identify as Jewish, though — at best I’m agnostic, but it’s more like religion just doesn’t play any sort of role in my life except when I rail against its use as a political bludgeon — but I suppose that’s neither here nor there.
Anyway, I was absolutely delighted when I saw that this ridiculously huge cometary body was named after an old friend. He and I have been exchanging emails about it and I couldn’t be more tickled by it.
These objects exist and these events happen whether humans notice them or not. But having his name attached to it makes it hit home, though, that science is a human endeavor. People are what make it go, and that, I think, is a good thing to always remember.
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