Meet comet Bernardinelli–Bernstein
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Meet comet Bernardinelli–Bernstein

You’ve seen the bumper stickers: “Killer Comet 2024.”

In a world of pandemic, paranoia, invading dictators, and political parties taken over by conspiracy theorists, the prospect of a comet sending the whole sorry lot of humanity the way of the dinosaurs does have its appeal.

So it’s particularly timely that the largest comet was recently discovered, and it has a Jewish name.

Comet Bernardinelli–Bernstein was discovered by astronomers Dr. Gary Bernstein, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Pedro Bernardinelli, a Brazilian who studied under Dr. Bernstein, from data collected over several years by the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.

Dr. Bernstein grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., and his family were members of Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax, Virginia.

As it happens, two other contemporary astronomers grew up in that synagogue at the time: Andrew Fruchter, who is on the staff of NASA’s Space Telescope Science Institute, and Dr. Phil Plait, a science writer who blogs as “The Bad Astronomer” and reported this coincidence.

The newly found comet’s diameter is estimated at 60 miles across. That’s 10 times bigger than the comet believed to have killed the dinosaurs after slamming into what is now the Gulf of Mexico some 66 million years ago.

Currently, the comet is further away from the sun than the planet Uranus is.

Unfortunately for anyone looking for a heaven-sent apocalyptic end to human history in the near future, however, the comet will not reach the inner solar system. It will venture no closer to the sun than Saturn’s orbit.

Its next approach won’t happen for another 4.5 million years.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll all be a bit less extinction-worthy by then.

 

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