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Comet Elenin: Just Passing By

Is Earth's impending doom close at hand?

It starts out innocently enough: a small speck against a field of background stars, barely noticeable in the image data. But… it’s a speck that wasn’t there before. Subsequent images confirm its existence – there’s something out there. Something bright, something large, and it’s moving through our solar system very quickly. The faint blur indicates that it’s a comet, an icy visitor from the outermost reaches of the solar system. And it’s headed straight toward Earth.

Exhaustive calculations are run and re-run. Computer simulations are executed. All possibilities are taken into consideration, and yet there’s no alternative to be found; our world will face a close encounter with a comet in mere months’ time. Phone calls are made, a flurry of electronic messages fly between computer terminals across the world, consultations are held with top experts in the field. We are unprepared… what can we do? What does this mean for civilization as we know it? What will this speeding icy bullet from outer space do to our planet?

The answer? Nothing.

Nothing at all. In fact, it probably won’t even be very interesting to look at – if you can even find it when it passes by.

(Sorry for the let-down.)

There’s been a lot of buzz in the past several months regarding Comet Elenin, a.k.a. C/2010 X1,  which was discovered by Russian astronomer Leonid Elenin on December 10, 2010. Elenin spotted the comet using a telescope in New Mexico remotely from his location in Lyubertsy, Russia. At that time it was about 647 million kilometers (401 million miles) from Earth… in the time since it has closed the distance considerably, and is now around 270 million km away. Elenin is a long-period comet, which means it has a rather large orbit around the Sun… it comes in from a vast distance, swings around the Sun and heads back out to the depths of the solar system – a round trip lasting over 10,000 years. During its current trip it will pass by Earth on October 16, coming as close as 35 million km (22 million miles).

Elenin's orbit via the JPL Small-Body Database Browser

Yes, 22 million miles.

That’s pretty far.

Way too far for us to be affected by anything a comet has to offer. Especially a not-particularly-large comet like Elenin.

Some of the doomy-gloomy internet sites have been mentioning the size of Elenin as being 80,000 km across. This is a scary, exaggerated number that may be referring to the size of Elenin’s coma – a hazy cloud of icy particles that surrounds a much, much smaller nucleus. The coma can be extensive but is insubstantial; it’s akin to icy cigarette smoke. Less than that, in fact… a comet’s coma and tail are even more of a vacuum than can be reproduced in a lab on Earth! In reality most comets have a nucleus smaller than 10km…that’s less than a billionth the mass of Earth (and a far cry from 80,000 km.) We have no reason to think that Elenin is any larger than this – it’s most likely smaller.

Ok, but how about the gravitational and/or magnetic effect of a comet passing by Earth? That’s surely got to do something, right? To Earth’s crust, or the tides? For the answer to that, I will refer to Don Yeomans, a researcher at NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at JPL:

“Comet Elenin will not only be far away, it is also on the small side for comets. And comets are not the most densely-packed objects out there. They usually have the density of something akin to loosely packed icy dirt,” said Yeomans. “So you’ve got a modest-sized icy dirtball that is getting no closer than 35 million kilometers. It will have an immeasurably miniscule influence on our planet. By comparison, my subcompact automobile exerts a greater influence on the ocean’s tides than comet Elenin ever will.”

“It will have an immeasurably miniscule influence on our planet. By comparison, my subcompact automobile exerts a greater influence on the ocean’s tides than comet Elenin ever will.”

– Don Yeomans, NASA / JPL

And as far as the effect from Elenin’s magnetic field goes… well, there is no effect. Elenin, like all comets, doesn’t have a magnetic field. Not much else to say there.

But the claims surrounding Elenin have gone much further toward the absurd. That it’s going to encounter another object and change course to one that will cause it to impact Earth, or that it’s not a comet at all but actually a planet – Nibiru, perhaps? – and is on a collision course with our own. Or (and I particularly like this one) that alien spaceships are trailing Elenin in such a way as to remain undetected until it’s too late and then they’ll take over Earth, stealing our water and natural resources and turning us all into slaves and/or space munchies… or however the stories go. (Of course the government and NASA and Al Gore and Al Gore’s hamster are all in cahoots and are withholding this information from the rest of us. That’s a given.) These stories are all just that – stories – and have not a shred of science to them, other than a heaping dose of science fiction.

“We live in nervous times, and conspiracy theories and predictions of disaster are more popular than ever. I like to use the word cosmophobia for this growing fear of astronomical objects and phenomena, which periodically runs amuck on the Internet. Ironically, in pre-scientific times, comets were often thought to be harbingers of disaster, mostly because they seemed to arrive unpredictably – unlike the movements of the planets and stars, which could be tracked on a daily and yearly basis.”

– David Morrison, planetary astronomer and senior scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center

The bottom line is this: Comet C/2010 X1 Elenin is coming, and it will pass by Earth at an extremely safe distance – 100 times the distance from Earth to the Moon. It will not be changing direction between now and then, it will not exert any gravitational effect on Earth, its magnetic field is nonexistent and there are no Star Destroyers cruising in its wake. The biggest effect it will have on Earth is what we are able to learn about it as it passes – after all, it is a visitor from the far reaches of our solar system and we won’t be seeing it again for a very, very long time.

I’m sure we’ll have found something else to be worried about long before then.

“This intrepid little traveler will offer astronomers a chance to study a relatively young comet that came here from well beyond our solar system’s planetary region. After a short while, it will be headed back out again, and we will not see or hear from Elenin for thousands of years. That’s pretty cool.”

– Don Yeomans

For more information about Elenin, check out this JPL news release featuring Don Yeomans, and there’s a special public issue of Astronomy Beat, a newsletter from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, that features David Morrison of NASA’s Ames Research Center discussing many of the misconceptions about Elenin.

An updated chart of Elenin’s orbit and statistics can be viewed here.

Top image © Jason Major

About 

A graphic designer in Rhode Island, Jason writes about space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark, Discovery News, and, of course, here on Universe Today. Ad astra!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Simone Moura June 9, 2011, 12:36 PM

    I read about the Elenin was stoped for 90 days…it’s true? Tks

    • WaxyMary June 9, 2011, 2:13 PM

      @Simone

      You said: I read about the Elenin was stoped for 90 days…it’s true? Tks

      I say: short answer — it is not true.

      Long answer — A body in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force.

      This means that comet Elenin with the density of a icy dirtball with a nucleus smaller than average (less than 10 km, a size less than average for a comet) will need a massive but gentle push (so as not to break up the icy dirtball). The length of time this would take is determined by the force and duration of the gentle ‘push’.

      Stopping a moving object causes it to become a stationary object, since Elenin is moving (still) it was never stopped.

      There are many fanciful stories riding the internet wave of late related to this comet, the keyword here is ‘fanciful’.

      Facts rule, where fancy flies, in the face of logic.

      Mary

      • Dale Beckman June 9, 2011, 3:46 PM

        why don’t you comment on the “coincidences” of “Elenin” lining up with the Earth and other heavenly bodies and the timing of the large earthquakes recently? Also, does something have to be large in order to have a great density? I don’t think so. Have scientists for a fact established its density? Or its size under its “cloud”? Don’t think so. So does anyone have facts that can establish one way or another its size or density? Don’t think so. But the alignments with earthquakes are established, as far as I understand. And as much as we understand about “dark matter” or “dark energy” or even our inability to grow just a single blade of grass from “scratch” tells me that there are a lot of things out there that we just do not understand yet. So why are so many “scientists” so ready to make unsubstantiated conclusions that this is a “wimpy” comet? Ignorance or cover-up or both? Since when does science draw conclusions on insufficient data?

        • Anonymous June 9, 2011, 4:07 PM

          Go to school and learn something about real science, beckman.

        • Anonymous June 9, 2011, 5:17 PM

          I classify this as the wackiest comment ever published on UT.

        • Peter Knapp June 9, 2011, 5:32 PM

          Science is so far beyond your ability to understand, Beckman that you wallow instead in fanciful fearmongering much as the ancients did in the dark ages. If astronomers have the comet’s speed, apparent size (with cloud) and arc of orbit, then they CAN determine mass and compare that to probable size given the many comets we have known to derive the density. Wow, and I’m not even a post graduate! Really, dude, go back to school and stay quiet until you actually learn something.

        • Torbjörn Larsson June 9, 2011, 5:51 PM

          why don’t you comment on the “coincidences” of “Elenin”

          Don’t think so. The article has already said all there is to say about the physics involved.

          Btw, have conspirationists for a fact established its dangerousness? Don’t think so.

          Does Beckman understand science and its facts (“grow just a single blade of grass from “scratch””)? Don’t think so.

          So, “don’t think”, huh?

        • Anonymous June 10, 2011, 12:51 AM

          Where is Uncle Fred when you really need him. This is pure hochum.

          LC

      • Simone Moura June 10, 2011, 3:09 AM

        Tks WaxyMary, you inlight me!

      • Simone Moura June 10, 2011, 3:09 AM

        Tks WaxyMary, you inlight me!

        • WaxyMary June 10, 2011, 4:07 PM

          Shine on you crazy diamond! (Pink Floyd ref of course)

          Mary

    • Anonymous June 9, 2011, 5:18 PM

      There is no “magical” method to stop a comet. It is moving in frictionless space.

      • Anonymous June 9, 2011, 5:49 PM

        Not all space is frictionless, there’s stuff out there to bump into. lol

        • Anonymous June 10, 2011, 7:21 PM

          That thing to bump into is as tiny as the mosquito that hits your wind-shield.

          • Anonymous June 10, 2011, 11:03 PM

            But, a swarm of them?

          • Anonymous June 10, 2011, 11:06 PM

            Should of added, makes for hazardous driving.

      • J. Major June 10, 2011, 3:33 AM

        Immobilius Hyakutake!!! *poof*

        Comet stopped. ;)

  • Sam Regenbogen June 9, 2011, 4:12 PM

    This isn’t exactly on the topic of this particular comet, but reading the article made me think of it: has anyone ever considered “tagging” a comet as it passed, either with just some sort of simple radio beacon, or preferably some scientific instrumentation? I mean I can probably name off the top of my head a dozen problems with the idea, and I’m no rocket scientist, but I don’t see how it would be *impossible*…

    It would obviously have to be a comet whose trajectory we can predict years in advance, but if Deep Impact and EPOXI are possible, it seems like it would be possible with enough careful planning to *land* a small probe on a comet without destroying it. I don’t know what the shortest period is for a comet that goes back out into the Kuiper Belt, but I could imagine a system designed to record a large amount of data about the outer solar system but just store it until it returned closer in.

    Like I said, I can think of lots of potential problems that would have to be overcome, so it probably wouldn’t be cost-effective for a long time, but imo it’s a damn cool idea…

    • J. Major June 9, 2011, 4:26 PM

      That would be pretty cool! Hitch a free ride around of the solar system!

      • Roman Rodák June 9, 2011, 4:35 PM

        Well, you’d have to match the speed of the comet as it passes by (the spacecraft surely wouldn’t survive rendezvous at tens of thousands of miles per hour) and the “price” for this would be similar to the “price” of a ride around the solar system (price = amount of fuel spent).

        BTW, does UT allow people like Dale Beckman to comment here? why?

        • Daniel Rose June 14, 2011, 3:10 AM

          what ever happened to “laser propulsion”. Bought up by military, and hidden I assume. I remeber watching a “beyond 2000″ story about it 15 or more years ago.. A ten thousand watt laser was aimed into a “acorn” shaped conentrator. They had the concentrated tethered to a vertical guide wire, laser reflected of a mirror. With only a burst of a few micro seconds of power the concentrator shot up the guy wire. The device would, according to the documentary work with or without atmosphere.
          I can’t even find reference to that documentary anymore :(

    • Don Smith June 9, 2011, 9:02 PM

      that would be cool. you might have a better chance tagging Comet Honda. It’ll be right on us Aug. 17 ish.

      • Don Smith June 20, 2011, 11:23 AM

        If you miss that one, there’s comet Levy, due to pass us even closer in Jan ’12. we’ll be passing thru it’s tail.

    • Jon Hanford June 10, 2011, 2:42 AM

      The Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko aims to synch up and orbit the comet through perihelion, with a rendezvous date in 2014: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosetta_%28spacecraft%29

      A landing craft (Philae) is expected to be deployed after Rosetta maps the comet’s terrain.

      [An interesting aside, Rosetta was mistaken for a *dangerous* near-Earth asteroid (NEA) during it's second flyby of Earth in 2007 and given the designation 2007 VN84: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosetta_%28spacecraft%29#Misidentification_as_an_asteroid ]

      @TL

      “So, “don’t think”, huh? ” LOL – So true!

  • Chad Ellington June 9, 2011, 4:34 PM

    Here’s hoping more people ‘off themselves’ over cosmophobia! Seriously though, I’m more interested in what forward scattering this comet will present.

  • HelloBozos June 9, 2011, 4:43 PM

    I feel alot of “Night of the Comet” showings comming up ,an old 80’s comet movie where if you weren’t in lead or steel shed, you turned to dust..heh

    • WaxyMary June 9, 2011, 6:53 PM

      And the valley girls RULE! Then and for a short time later.

      Mary

  • Torbjörn Larsson June 9, 2011, 5:45 PM

    Ha, I haven’t even heard of Elenin before.

    I am a little miffed that it takes my car (or some friends) to have a larger gravitational impact on Earth than Elenin, not me alone.

    I like to use the word cosmophobia for this growing fear of astronomical objects and phenomena, which periodically runs amuck on the Internet. Ironically, in pre-scientific times, comets were often thought to be harbingers of disaster, mostly because they seemed to arrive unpredictably – unlike the movements of the planets and stars, which could be tracked on a daily and yearly basis.

    Well, there was the Halley scare too, as soon as cyanogen was revealed in spectra. (But it seems astronomer Flammarion was the culprit dimwit.)

    Considering that this seem to happen around a lot of things, I am not sure “cosmophobia” would be a good term.

    My feeling, and it is no more than a personal narrative, is that these things come about around new phenomena, dimly perceived from a social distance. It would be interesting to know if someone has studied this putative phenomena.

    It my narrative is somewhere touching the actual process, it is actually a sign of increased societal understanding (and would go away with time). I would say that it happened around magnetism, electricity and so on; first fright, then acceptance, later understanding of sorts.

    • Anonymous June 9, 2011, 8:27 PM

      The solution is pretty simple, move your car and that will deflect Elenin. LOL

    • Anonymous June 9, 2011, 8:27 PM

      The solution is pretty simple, move your car and that will deflect Elenin. LOL

    • Anonymous June 9, 2011, 8:29 PM

      I calculated that the gravitational influence from Elenin on you at its closest point would be like a 80 kg person standing 190 km away from you.

    • Anonymous June 9, 2011, 8:29 PM

      I calculated that the gravitational influence from Elenin on you at its closest point would be like a 80 kg person standing 190 km away from you.

    • Jon Hanford June 10, 2011, 2:53 AM

      “…there was the Halley scare too, as soon as cyanogen was revealed in spectra.”

      Yeah, if I had lesser scruples, I’d be selling Comet Elenin pills to the afflicted masses: https://science.pfizer.com/content/this-week-in-science-history-halleys-comet/

  • Hector Vazquez June 9, 2011, 6:03 PM

    nah this is just the aliens form battle Los angeles trying to take our water even though there is water everywhere in the universe and take our mineral deposits even though there’s more mineral in asteroids than everything we pulled up from the ground…

  • Marc S June 9, 2011, 8:07 PM

    Have no fear Elenin, the end is near
    The sheep will die and no more lies
    Earth is cleansed, once again

  • Pavel Smutny June 9, 2011, 9:16 PM

    Neutron stars have also diameter cca 10, 20, 30km,…but they have enormous mass till of some Suns,..Elenin shouldn’t be comming Nibiru (also on photos it looks like typical distant comet), but it is something traveling to us cca on orbit similar to supposed Nibiru,..

  • Nelly Bradley June 9, 2011, 9:58 PM

    Correction: comets are not “dirty snowballs”. They are electrical phenomena as shown in the work of McCanney et al. What Jason neglected to mention is that, for the most part, passing comets affect us ‘at a distance’ by discharging the solar capacitor. Sometimes they leaves physical prints behind too. But not from close encounters. Rather, we mightn’t notice any effects until long after (1+ years) we pass through the debris in its tail, which we are shceduled to do around early October. Of course, by next year, when the effects of Elenin are just beginning to take their toll on society, there’ll be other comets on the horizon and more wars down here to distract us.

    • J. Major June 9, 2011, 10:56 PM

      Actually what I neglected to mention is that proponents of the electric universe theory say that comets are cosmic batteries pumping out charged plasma instead of ice and gas. Which would have been included in the “absurd claims” paragraph. My bad.

  • Marlon David June 9, 2011, 10:12 PM

    It wont probably be interesting to look at! universe today deals with science specially about space. suddenly it is not interested in a comet, a long period at at that, which pass by earth in thousand of years interval. if only nasa discovered comet elenin, it will probably be preparing for a close encounter but sad to say it was discovered by a russian.

    • J. Major June 9, 2011, 10:51 PM

      On the contrary, what Universe Today is not interested in is pseudo-science surrounding Comet Elenin. It itself will gladly be featured here, but we’re not about to pander to junk theories presented by those who, honestly, don’t know what they are talking about.

      No, Elenin may not be very spectacular as it passes…not to the casual observer, that is. It most likely won’t put on a display in the sky like others have. Astronomers, on the other hand, will of course be using this opportunity to learn more about it.

  • curtis.michalak June 10, 2011, 1:00 AM

    Nobody is falling for this guy’s BS article. Any idiot knows something is wrong with all the earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, mass die offs of sea life and animals. There is a brown dwarf star in our solar system and soon everybody will see a second sun in the sky. This guy is sending u to your death by not tell u the truth. U better start preparing now before it is too late.

  • curtis.michalak June 10, 2011, 1:00 AM

    Nobody is falling for this guy’s BS article. Any idiot knows something is wrong with all the earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, mass die offs of sea life and animals. There is a brown dwarf star in our solar system and soon everybody will see a second sun in the sky. This guy is sending u to your death by not tell u the truth. U better start preparing now before it is too late.

  • curtis.michalak June 10, 2011, 1:00 AM

    Nobody is falling for this guy’s BS article. Any idiot knows something is wrong with all the earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, mass die offs of sea life and animals. There is a brown dwarf star in our solar system and soon everybody will see a second sun in the sky. This guy is sending u to your death by not tell u the truth. U better start preparing now before it is too late.

  • David Sims June 10, 2011, 1:42 AM

    People who want to get excited should focus on Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova. It will miss Earth by only 5 million miles on 16 August 2011. On the other hand, we seem to be getting a lot of fairly close misses. Sooner or later something will hit us. Eventually. Someday. Probably.

  • Anonymous June 10, 2011, 2:43 AM

    I have to give Bronx cheers to the “Star Wars” or SDI program for some of this. After the USSR ceased to exist the program diverged at a point to its justification as an asteroid shield. It seems that since the early 1990s there have been increased worries over these matters — with a few movies to hype the situation. There really is nothing in particular to worry about, even with basic small meteoroid impacts which might reach the ground. Yes, it can happen, but the probabilities of anything catastrophic are remote. This goes further with highly extraordinary claims of brown dwarfs and other planets, such as the Nubira claim, and the like. These are silly worries over nothing.

    LC

    • Anonymous June 10, 2011, 2:59 AM

      I’m here.

      I’ve noticed a lot of these comments get “liked” here on discus. Maybe people find some sort of pleasure in reading these absurdities. Perhaps they genuinely agree. Either way, it’s just plain nutty.

  • Kevin Duncil June 10, 2011, 3:43 AM

    You are absolutely right. Comets are just big friendly fireballs in the sky. I mean it’s not as if it was a comet that broke up as it encountered jupiters magnetic field, and got pulled into it’s orbit, only to later smash into the planet, sending plumes thousands of kms into the sky, and leaving blackened scars larger than the earth, was? Wait a minute… Oh yeah, it was.

    • Anonymous June 10, 2011, 7:32 AM

      “Iceballs” might be more apt, or is that a survival tactic ;-)

    • Anonymous June 10, 2011, 7:20 PM

      Broke up because of the magnetic field of Jupiter???

  • Aditya Killr Kamath June 10, 2011, 5:31 AM

    How do you explain the big earthquakes caused when elenin lines up with earth and the sun? coincidences? its not only japan,chile and christchurch , its happened many times before. coincidences? more than 3 times? dr mensur omerbashich has presented a report in which he talks about astronomical alignments having an influence of seismic activity, in this he included the elenin comet. A comet cannot cause earthquakes from such a long distance, this things got to be a brown dwarf or any other object with a large mass, probably more than jupiter to cause such seismic activity from this distance,most probably a brown dwarf star , which we cant seee because brown dwarfs dont emit light and one with the mass of jupiter is only about 50% bigger than earth. One guy named terral has been warning people about this before the japan earthquake and he predicted something big to happen between the 10th of march 2011 to the 15th, and there we had it! the biggest earthquake in japan, he says on sept 26 2011 we have a poleshift event.What are your thoughts on this jason? looking forward to an answer.Thankyou

    • Anonymous June 10, 2011, 7:31 AM

      There isn’ t year that goes by without a “major” earthquake, just pick the nearest.

      Elenin has never “lined up” with the Earth and Sun, tough can always pick the point of nearest approach regardless of how far off it is.

      Brown dwarf stars emit IR and are detectable well outside the solar system.

      As you correctly say “A comet cannot cause earthquakes from such a long distance”, but neither could a brown dwarf.

      My thoughts are … You know all this already, your just having a bit of fun trying to hook in a reaction ;-)

      Enjoy the joke, I know I did :-)

  • Anonymous June 10, 2011, 10:39 AM

    Hi, I´m studying this comet elenin for a month and noticed that we must be aware of it´s movements. No coincedences are happening. All is in God´s control but nothing in our own hands. Even Nasa´s managers can´t be sure what´s happening. Dr. Mensur Omerbashich has presented a report in which he talks about LONG period alignments (> 3 days) having an influence of seismic activity. Next autumn critical dates are sept 27 th when the sun, elenin and the earth are in alignment. It happened to be one day before Rosh haShanah (the jewish new year´s day). The next date, october 17 th, elenin and the earth are closest and the influence is unexpected. This date is in the middle of Sukkot.
    On november 5 th the earth goes through the “tail” of elenin. One can´t imagine what´s happening then! November 23 th elenin and the earth are in the same position as they were during the Chile earthquake but much more closer.

  • Anonymous June 10, 2011, 10:39 AM

    Hi, I´m studying this comet elenin for a month and noticed that we must be aware of it´s movements. No coincedences are happening. All is in God´s control but nothing in our own hands. Even Nasa´s managers can´t be sure what´s happening. Dr. Mensur Omerbashich has presented a report in which he talks about LONG period alignments (> 3 days) having an influence of seismic activity. Next autumn critical dates are sept 27 th when the sun, elenin and the earth are in alignment. It happened to be one day before Rosh haShanah (the jewish new year´s day). The next date, october 17 th, elenin and the earth are closest and the influence is unexpected. This date is in the middle of Sukkot.
    On november 5 th the earth goes through the “tail” of elenin. One can´t imagine what´s happening then! November 23 th elenin and the earth are in the same position as they were during the Chile earthquake but much more closer.

  • Anonymous June 10, 2011, 12:04 PM

    I find it very interesting that in these days of modern science that we still cannot accept the fact that hypothesis and theories are very hard for people (including scientist) are very hard to accept. This comet or brown dwarf star is so new to the astrophysics world that we cannot possible assume we know exactly what will happen. Thru out history we have lived in a world where people scoffed at new ideas, correlations, ect. and yet many of these eventually happened such as: finding out that the earth “is not” round,–human beings can “fly” with the development of the airplane, natural occurances such as earthquakes, volcanoes, etc. are not actions of the God/s, and many more elements that we accept as fact now based on scientific knowledge that several hundred/thousand years ago was unacceptable. 60 years ago one would have never thought we could communicate world wide on a machine from our home in real time, let alone send pictures, videos, on voice all at the same time!! The real fact remains is that we really don’t know enough about this to make a safe and accurate call on exactly “what” will happen! Interesting that our planet is is such a state of affairs as we currently are and the latest major earthquakes so some correlation with various alignments of earth, sun, elenin? We live in a world of consant change and discovery. Lets’ wait and see what happens before we start acting like we really know what will happen. Be prepared!

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