C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein): the nearly spherical cow of comets

20 Sep 2021  ·  Pedro H. Bernardinelli, Gary M. Bernstein, Benjamin T. Montet, Robert Weryk, Richard Wainscoat, M. Aguena, S. Allam, F. Andrade-Oliveira, J. Annis, S. Avila, E. Bertin, D. Brooks, D. L. Burke, A. Carnero Rosell, M. Carrasco Kind, J. Carretero, R. Cawthon, C. Conselice, M. Costanzi, L. N. da Costa, M. E. S. Pereira, J. De Vicente, H. T. Diehl, S. Everett, I. Ferrero, B. Flaugher, J. Frieman, J. García-Bellido, E. Gaztanaga, D. W. Gerdes, D. Gruen, R. A. Gruendl, J. Gschwend, G. Gutierrez, S. R. Hinton, D. L. Hollowood, K. Honscheid, D. J. James, K. Kuehn, N. Kuropatkin, O. Lahav, M. A. G. Maia, J. L. Marshall, F. Menanteau, R. Miquel, R. Morgan, R. L. C. Ogando, F. Paz-Chinchón, A. Pieres, A. A. Plazas Malagón, M. Rodriguez-Monroy, A. K. Romer, A. Roodman, E. Sanchez, M. Schubnell, S. Serrano, I. Sevilla-Noarbe, M. Smith, M. Soares-Santos, E. Suchyta, M. E. C. Swanson, G. Tarle, C. To, M. A. Troxel, T. N. Varga, A. R. Walker, Y. Zhang ·

C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein) is a comet incoming from the Oort cloud which is remarkable in having the brightest (and presumably largest) nucleus of any well-measured comet, and having been discovered at heliocentric distance $r_h\approx29$ au farther than any Oort-cloud member. We describe the properties that can be inferred from images recorded until the first reports of activity in June 2021... The orbit has $i=95^\circ,$ with perihelion of 10.97 au to be reached in 2031, and previous aphelion at $40,400\pm260$ au. Backwards integration of the orbit under a standard Galactic tidal model and known stellar encounters suggests this is a pristine new comet, with a perihelion of $q\approx18$ au on its previous perihelion passage 3.5 Myr ago. The photometric data show an unresolved nucleus with absolute magnitude $H_r=8.0,$ colors that are typical of comet nuclei or Damocloids, and no secular trend as it traversed the range 34--23 au. For $r$-band geometric albedo $p_r,$ this implies a diameter of $150 (p_r/0.04)^{-0.5}$ km. There is strong evidence of brightness fluctuations at $\pm0.2$ mag level, but no rotation period can be discerned. A coma consistent with a ``stationary' $1/\rho$ surface-brightness distribution grew in scattering cross-section at an exponential rate from $A f \rho\approx1$ m to $\approx150$ m as the comet approached from 28 to 20 au. The activity is consistent with a simple model of sublimation of a surface species in radiative equilibrium with the Sun. The inferred enthalpy of sublimation matches those of $CO_2$ and $NH_3$. More-volatile species -- $N_2,$ $CH_4,$ and $CO$ -- must be far less abundant on the sublimating surfaces. read more

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Earth and Planetary Astrophysics