Fact check: 62-mile-wide mega comet unlikely to hit Earth, will just pass by it in 2031
The claim: A 62 mile wide megacomet has entered the solar system
Expect some brilliant lights in the night sky this summer: the Delta Aquariid meteor shower that began this month will be visible through August 23, producing bright fireballs that are usually visible after midnight and before sunrise.
But some on social media claim that a much more alarming celestial body is also coming our way.
"A 62 mile wide 'mega-comet' 'has just entered our solar system," reads a graphic shared in an Instagram post on July 22nd.
Similar posts on Facebook claim that "scientists" say the mega-comet is "approaching Earth". Some posts point to a catastrophic event with the hashtags "#endtimes" and "#bibleprophecy".
The enormous mass of ice, rock and space dust - named Comet Bernardinelli-Amber after its discoverers Pedro Bernardinelli and Gary Bernstein of the University of Pennsylvania - is definitely real. But contrary to what the posts claim, it didn't just invade our solar system. And it is not a threat to the earth.
USA TODAY asked the posters for a comment.
Comet first noticed a few years ago
The colossal comet was first observed in 2014 during a study of archival data from the Dark Energy Survey, an international collaborative project that uses the Victor M. Blanco Telescope in Chile to map the cosmos.
Because it orbited the sun at a greater distance than Neptune, the eighth and last planet in our solar system, the comet was originally classified as a trans-Neptunian object, or TNO. Its classification changed that year when the iconic "tail" or coma - the stream of dust and gas released when a comet approaches the Sun and warms up - was confirmed independently of the Las Cumbres Observatory's network.
Technically, Comet Bernardinelli-Amber has always been in our solar system. Astronomers believe it came from the Oort Cloud, a very distant region of space that is believed to envelop our solar system like a bubble made up of trillions of icy pieces of space debris. (The famous Halley's Comet is said to have come from the same cosmic environment.)
The megacomet likely began its journey from this part of space about 3.7 trillion miles from the Sun.
As of 2014, it was 2.7 billion miles from the sun. At this point it had entered our inner solar system, the region known to us, which includes all known planets.
Despite the great distance, it is the impressive dimensions that caught the researchers' eye. Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein is one of the largest comets ever found, measuring between 62 and 230 miles in diameter, and even ten times larger than the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, scientists say.
Comet will pass Earth by 2031
The comet's gigantic size is an estimate based on how much sunlight it reflects. While on closer inspection we were able to determine that it is actually even bigger, this does not change the certainty of astronomers: the wandering comet is unlikely to harm our planet.
"The size estimate has no bearing on the trajectory the comet will take ... there is no way this thing will get closer to Earth than Saturn," says Bernstein, co-discoverer of the comet and professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania, USA TODAY announced in an email.
Scientists predict that this trajectory will take the icy rock from its current point just beyond Neptune's orbit to near Saturn's orbit in 2031, which will be closest to Earth. It will then whiz back to the distant regions of our solar system. It will be about a billion miles from Earth at this point.
It's important to note that this isn't the first time the megacomet has passed by. Astronomers believe it last visited the inner solar system about 3 million years ago. It could make the trip again in another 5 million years, Bernstein said.
Our assessment: Lack of context
Based on our research, we evaluate the claim that a 62 mile wide megacomet entered the solar system MISSING CONTEXT as it could be misleading without additional information. The great comet has probably always been in our solar system as scientists believe it came from a distant part of the solar system, the Oort cloud. But it is not a threat to Earth, as some posts suggest. At its narrowest point in 2031, it will still be about a billion miles from us.
Our fact check sources:
USA TODAY, July 28th, Keep your eyes fixed on the sky: Double meteor showers could produce fireballs this week
EarthSky, July 26th, Delta Aquariid 2021 Meteor Shower: All You Need To Know
Pedro Bernardinelli, June 20, Twitter thread
NASA, November 8, 2018, New findings about cometary tails are blowing in the solar wind
CNN, July 27th, Largest Known Comet Comes Close Enough To Be Visible
USA TODAY, June 30th, The largest comet ever discovered in modern times is hurtling towards the sun
NASA, accessed July 29, Oort Cloud
Space.com, June 10, 2020, Halley's Comet and others could be stolen goods
Planetary Science Institute, accessed July 29, The Impact That Wiped Out the Dinosaurs
Space.com, July 1 The newly discovered mega-comet could be the largest in recorded history
Gary Bernstein, July 29, email interview with USA TODAY
Mashable, July 3rd, Why the mega-comet is so fascinating - and not a threat to Earth
LiveScience, June 22, 2010, Human ancestor 'Lucy' walked upright 3.2 million years ago
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Our fact-checking work is partially supported by a grant from Facebook.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact Check: Megacomet will not pass Earth until 2031, no risk of impact
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