June 27, 2021


One of The Brickmuppet's Crack Team of Science Babes brings us news from the world Astronomy.

Art by Mato Hoshibara. She can be supported on Fanbox.

It appears that a planet is entering the inner solar system. 

It's technically a dwarf planet...but I don't think we can say dwarf anymore so revel in the clickbait. 

It's also a part of the solar system, specifically the Kuiper belt and is just on a really long orbit that is bringing it into the inner Solar System, so, it's basically a comet. However, 2014 UN271 may be more than 200 miles in diameter and probably qualifies as a Dwarf Planet. (Oh, looky there, I said it.) 

This appears to be a big Trans-Neptunian Object like Pluto, Eris, or Makemake, which scientists are eager to visit, but are so far away (much farther than even Pluto) that the expense and time required for such missions mean that they are unlikely to be visited in the foreseeable future.  

2014 UN271 however, is coming to us! On Saturday, April 5 2031, the object will reach its closest approach to the sun, just inside the orbit of Saturn. 10 years is long enough that a mission can be put together and while Saturn is way out there, its much easier to reach than most of these things. This could be really cool.

There are a couple of things about this object that are speculative; one is its size, which is anywhere between 60 and 230 miles across, the reason for this is that it appears to be outgassing already even though it's beyond Neptune right now. If so, it probably is covered in very low melting point volatiles. This COULD mean that even being beyond Jupiter  when it turns back, it could be a truly spectacular comet. 

Leaving the staid realm of orbital mechanics and engineering for a moment to wandering into the whackadoodle speculations of history majors, it should be noted that in addition to the scientific bounty this TNO brings with it some spectacularly unlikely potential for hijinks.

These objects appear to be made largely of tholins, ice, and frozen nitrogen. Nitrogen is something that one needs a LOT of if one were (for some reason) going to, say, terraform Mars, and planetary quantities of nitrogen that are accessible are hard to come by. So I could see Elon Musk sending some rather desperate expedition to this thing to set up some mass drivers and frantically mine it for its nitrogen, water, and organics during the few years it is within shooting distance of Mars, all the while frantically hurling blocks of volatiles towards the red planet, maybe with foil screens around them to ensure they don't completely evaporate before impact. This is a dubious prospect for a whole host of reasons but it might make a great story. 

One nomenclature note, the object is currently given the tentative name of Bernardinelli-Bernstein, which is WAY outside the normal, mythologically inspired names for such things, but is completely in line with how they name comets. 

Posted by: The Brickmuppet at 04:46 AM | Comments (8) | Add Comment
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