Comet Elenin: Just Passing By

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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

FBI Memo Does Not Prove Aliens Crash Landed in Roswell

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A 1950 FBI memo is creating some recent buzz by UFO supporters who say this provides “smoking gun” evidence that the US government recovered a crashed alien ship and bodies in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. The memo, found on the FBI vault website and dated March 22, 1950 reports that an informant related information about three flying saucers had been recovered in New Mexico along with three bodies of human shape, but only 3 feet tall, and dressed in metallic cloth.

So, does this “newly found” and “secret” memo confirm what UFO supporters have believed for years, that the government covered up a landing by aliens in Roswell?

Sorry, no.

While the memo is genuine – written up by FBI special agent Guy Hottel, (you can see it on the FBI Vault website) it is not new, is not secret and does not have anything to do a supposed crash by an alien ship in Roswell, New Mexico.

The memo is not classified, as was reported by some websites, and has actually been discussed by UFO supporters for years, having been released in 1976 by the FBI. Even Robert Hastings, the guy who believes UFOs are shutting down nuclear reactors posted a comment on a UFO website that he has been discussing this memo in his talks since 1981.

So, the memo is certainly not new.

Also, the memo is not a secret FBI report, but a third-hand account from agent Hottel reporting what an Air Force investigator was told by an “informant.”

Lastly, as Benjamin Radford points out in his post on Live Science, “ the description in the memo of three ‘flying saucers…circular in shape with raised centers, approximately 50 feet in diameter,’ does not match the 1947 Roswell crash at all. Roswell eyewitnesses described finding lightweight metallic debris scattered in a field—not three intact 50-foot saucers holding nine dead alien bodies.”

In fact, Radford goes on, this memo does not refer to Roswell, but instead to a reported UFO crash in another small New Mexico town called Aztec in March 1948. The supposed crash was made famous by journalist Frank Scully who wrote for Variety magazine and wrote specifically about the Aztec crash in 1949. However, in 1952, it was revealed by another reporter that Scully had been hoaxed by a con man named Silas Newton, who fabricated the entire story in hopes of making money from the deal. Newton was arrested and convicted of fraud.

So, nothing new has been “revealed” by this old memo which very likely describes Newton’s account of an event that has since been proven to be a complete fabrication.

UN May Appoint Ambassador to Visiting Aliens

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UPDATE: OK, this seemed like a cool story, reported by many news sources, but apparently, it isn’t true. The Discovery Discoblog has the details. . I guess there was a truth abduction.

If aliens ever visit Earth and actually do use the time-worn phrase, “Take me to your leader,” or if a SETI search ever finds a signal of an alien civilization saying “hello,” there may be someone ready and waiting to respond. The United Nations is considering selecting a special ambassador to be the first point of contact for aliens wishing to communicate with Earth. Mazlan Othman, a Malaysian astrophysicist and currently head of the UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) is expected to be named to the position.

“Othman is absolutely the nearest thing we have to a ‘take me to your leader’ person,” said Richard Crowther, in an article in the UK newspaper, the Telegraph.

Crowther is an expert in space law at the UK space agency who leads delegations to the UN. Reportedly, the plan to make UNOOSA the coordinating body for dealing with alien encounters will be debated by UN scientific advisory committees and should eventually reach the body’s general assembly.

The proposal is said to have been prompted by the recent discovery of hundreds extrasolar planets, which makes the discovery of extraterrestrial life more probable than ever.

Ms. Othman said in a recent talk to fellow scientists, “The continued search for extraterrestrial communication, by several entities, sustains the hope that someday human kind will received signals from extraterrestrials. When we do, we should have in place a coordinated response that takes into account all the sensitivities related to the subject. The UN is a ready-made mechanism for such coordination.”

But will visiting ET’s be greeted with open arms, or with a conditional sterilization? Under the Outer Space Treaty written in 1967, (which UNOOSA oversees) UN members agreed to protect Earth against contamination by alien species by “sterilizing” them. Reportedly, Othman supports a more tolerant approach.

But physicist Stephen Hawking has warned that aliens should be treated with caution.

“I imagine they might exist in massive ships,” he said, “having used up all the resources from their home planet. The outcome for us would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.” Alien abduction would be the least of our worries.

In the meantime, US citizens wishing to be ‘ambassadors’ for space exploration should consider joining JPL’s Solar System Ambassador program. This is a great program (which I am honored to participate in) to spread the word about the wonders of excitement of space exploration and science. Find out more at the SSA website, and if interested, the program is now taking applications for new ambassadors. Hurry, as applications are being taken until September 30, 2010.

Source: The Telegraph

If the Earth is Rare, We May Not Hear from ET

Earth - Moon System

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If civilization-forming intelligent life is rare in our Milky Way galaxy, chances are we won’t hear from ET before the Sun goes red giant, in about five billion years’ time; however, if we do hear from ET before then, we’ll have lots of nice chats before the Earth is sterilized.

That’s the conclusion from a recent study of Ward and Brownlee’s Rare Earth hypothesis by Duncan Forgan and Ken Rice, in which they made a toy galaxy, simulating the real one we live in, and ran it 30 times. In their toy galaxy, intelligent life formed on Earth-like planets only, just as it does in the Rare Earth hypothesis.

While the Forgan and Rice simulations are still limited and somewhat unrealistic, they give a better handle on SETI’s chances for success than either the Drake equation or Fermi’s “Where are they?”

“The Drake equation itself does suffer from some key weaknesses: it relies strongly on mean estimations of variables such as the star formation rate; it is unable to incorporate the effects of the physico-chemical history of the galaxy, or the time-dependence of its terms,” Forgan says, “Indeed, it is criticized for its polarizing effect on “contact optimists” and “contact pessimists”, who ascribe very different values to the parameters, and return values of the number of galactic civilizations who can communicate with Earth between a hundred-thousandth and a million (!)”

Building on the work of Vukotic and Cirkovic, Forgan developed a Monte Carlo-based simulation of our galaxy; as inputs, he used the best estimates of actual astrophysical parameters such as the star formation rate, initial mass function, a star’s time spent on the main sequence, likelihood of death from the skies, etc. For several key inputs however, “the model goes beyond relatively well-constrained parameters, and becomes hypothesis,” Forgan explains, “In essence, the method generates a Galaxy of a billion stars, each with their own stellar properties (mass, luminosity, location in the Galaxy, etc.) randomly selected from observed statistical distributions. Planetary systems are then generated for these stars in a similar manner, and life is allowed to evolve in these planets according to some hypothesis of origin. The end result is a mock Galaxy which is statistically representative of the Milky Way. To quantify random sampling errors, this process is repeated many times: this allows an estimation of the sample mean and sample standard deviation of the output variables obtained.”

Forgan simulated the Rare Earth hypothesis by allowing animal life – the only kind of life from which intelligent civilizations can arise – to form only if homeworld’s mass is between a half and two Earths, if homesun’s mass is between a half and 1.5 times our Sun’s, homeworld has at least one moon (for tides and axial stability), and if homesun has at least one planet of mass at least ten times that of Earth, in an outer orbit (to cut down on death from the skies due to asteroids and comets).

The good news for SETI is that a galaxy like ours should host hundreds of intelligent civilizations (though, somewhat surprisingly, there is no galactic goldilocks zone); the bad news is that during the time such a civilization could communicate with an ET – between when it becomes technologically advanced enough and when it is wiped out by homesun going red giant – there are, in most simulations, no other such civilizations (or if there are, they are too far away) … we, or ET, would be alone.

But it’s not all bad news; if we are not alone, then once contact is established, we will have many phone calls with ET.

To be sure, this is but a work-in-progress. “Numerical modeling of this type is generally a shadow of the entity it attempts to model, in this case the Milky Way and its constituent stars, planets and other objects,” Forgan and Rice say; several improvements are already being worked on.

Sources: “A numerical testbed for hypotheses of extraterrestrial life and intelligence” (Forgan D., 2009, International Journal of Astrobiology, 8, 121), and “Numerical Testing of The Rare Earth Hypothesis using Monte Carlo Realisation Techniques” (arXiv:1001:1680); this too will be published in IJA, likely in April.

The Truth About NASA’s UFO Videos

Perusing You Tube, there are lots of UFO videos, which are usually grainy, shaky videos showing nothing that can be proved definitively. But there are a couple of videos that are different — and have generated a lot of interest — because they were filmed by NASA astronauts during space missions.

I’d like to recommend everyone read an article published today by Popular Mechanics where the astronauts who were behind the camera for two of these videos speak out about what is actually in the videos, and NASA’s supposed “cover-up.” The two astronauts, Tom Jones and Mario Runco “reveal” what the videos are really showing.

“There’s no way to keep people from using public domain footage for silly purposes,” former astronaut Tom Jones says in the article. “If a shuttle beams back 10 hours of Earth views each day, there are bound to be images and scenes that are misunderstood or taken out of context.”

And “out of context” is what many UFO theories and proponents rely on, says writer Erik Sofge. And NASA tends to never make official statements debunking any of the UFO claims, which helps fuel the flames. One clip, taken by Runco is of the PAM-STU satellite that Runco and his crew deployed during the STS-77 mission in 1996, outfitted with reflective materials. During the entire clip, however, Runco or mission control never says exactly what they are filming, but keep referring to it as “the target,” typical for pilots and NASA astronauts. There are other oddities about the clip, with lights moving in the background, but Runco says the lights are likely to be stars.

Another clip, taken by Jones is simply “ice crystals or flakes of thruster residue in the near field are floating by, get hit by a thruster exhaust plume and zip out of the scene,” Jones said.

It’s one thing to believe that alien life is a statistical likelihood, and quite another to interpret lights in the sky as intergalactic contact. Check out the great article, and kudos to Jones and Runco for speaking out.