Story at a glance
- The 2014 UN271 is a trans-Neptunian object, which is a minor planet in the solar system orbiting the sun at a greater average distance than Neptune.
- Astronomers first saw the object in 2014, but they didn't officially recognize the planet until earlier this year.
- Now, the planet is passing Earth on an orbit bringing it closer to the sun for the first time in more than 600,000 years.
More than 600,000 years ago, when our Paleolithic ancestors lived, the planets aligned, and if the conditions were just right, they may have had the first glimpse of 2014 UN271. Now, the planets are setting up to give us the same view within a decade.
Astronomers first captured an image of 2014 UN271 in 2014 — hence the name — as part of the Dark Energy survey, which ran through 2018. The planet wasn’t recognized as a trans-Neptunian object, which is a minor planet in the solar system orbiting the sun at a greater average distance than Neptune, until scientists published the data last year.
Now, according to an amateur astronomer on the Minor Planet Center’s forum, the planet is en route to come the closest it will ever be to the sun in 2031. Its “extremely eccentric” orbit will pass by Earth’s vicinity, reported New Atlas, for just a short while during its 612,190-year journey between the inner solar system and the Oort cloud, the most distant region of our solar system.
"It almost feels premature to ascribe any sort of theoretical slope to it with how little precedent there is for objects like this, but if Hale-Bopp is any indication with its slope of 20 at large distances, then 2014 UN271 could possibly reach magnitude 13 in early 2031 - but I wouldn't count on much brighter than 16 or 17 just yet. Either way, that's impressively bright, and this object should make an exceptional target of study in the next couple of decades to accompany how exceptional an object it looks to be," Deen wrote in the post, referencing the Comet Hale–Bopp, which was the farthest comet from the Sun discovered by amateurs.
The planet, which is estimated to be 62 to 230 miles wide, may not quite be visible to the human eye, but if the conditions are right, you may share a glimpse of the same skies with your prehistoric ancestors for a brief time.
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