Despite countless articles published over the course of several years to the contrary, despite videos and interviews with some of the world’s most prominent and well-respected astronomers, despite new archaeological discoveries and well-established knowledge, despite the laws of physics, for crying out loud (and, curiously enough, even despite the fact that parts of the world are, at the time of this writing, already well within the supposed “doomsday” with nary a Nibiru in sight) many people are still wondering what will happen on the much-touted December 21, 2012, aka “doomsday” per the end of the 13th b’ak’tun of the Maya calendar (or something like that.) After all, if it’s trending on Twitter it must be important, right?
Well, yes and no. No because there’s not a shred of truth to the whole thing (except for the fact that there were Maya and they had a calendar) but yes because many people are actually very concerned about… well, I guess about the safety of the world. (Don’t believe me? Read this.) Which is in itself reasonable, I suppose. So in the nature of public outreach and the attempt to spread real information to combat the other kind, NASA’s has released yet one more video interview with astrophysicist David Morrison, director of the Carl Sagan Center for Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI Institute. I don’t know if David could tell you how to replace a broken head gasket or perform an appendectomy, but when it comes to space he knows his stuff. So check out the video, be not alarmed, and pass it on to anyone you know who might still be feeling the b’ak’tun blues.
See you on the 22nd! (Still skeptical? Check out some other videos and links below.)
So rest assured, the only astronomical event expected for the 21st is the winter solstice (summer in the south), which happens every year on every planet with an axial tilt with no ill effects (besides perhaps a sudden sinking realization that you’re nowhere near done with your holiday shopping.) Happy solstice!
The Daily Mail is reporting that a youtube user has found a strange object while poking around in Google Sky. It looks suspiciously like a glowing green asteroid and he claims it’s heading right for us. But before we call in the experts, let’s do a little bit of critical analysis on our own.
First off, the image raises alarm bells because of the apparent size of the object. Without knowing how far away it may be, it’s hard to say how large it would actually be, but we can put some limits on it. I looked up the region on Aladin and the angular distance between the two stars just to the upper right of the object is 1 arc minute. The object seems to be about that size, so we can use that as a baseline.
Assuming that the object was somewhere in the vicinity of Pluto (roughly 6 billion km), doing a bit of quick geometry means the object would be somewhere around 580,000 km. To put that in context, that’s about 40% the diameter of the Sun. If that were the case, this wouldn’t be an asteroid, it would be a small star. The funny thing about stars is that they tend to be somewhat bright and a lot more round. So that rules out that extreme.
But what if it were very close? At the distance of the moon, that would mean the object would be about 300 km in diameter which would make this thing slightly smaller than the largest asteroid, Ceres. However, this raises another issue: With that much mass, the object should still be pretty round. Additionally, with such a size and distance, it would be very bright. And it’s not.
Even closer we run into additional issues. Astronomical images aren’t taken as a single color image. Images like this are taken in 3 filters (RGB) and then combined to make a color image. If the object is nearby, it moves from image to image, showing up in the final image in 3 places, each as a different color. For example, here’s an image of 2011 MD illustrating the effect. Given the object in question doesn’t have this tri-color separation going on, it can’t be nearby.
So this has pretty much ruled out anything anywhere in our solar system. If it’s close, it should have color issues and be bright. If it’s far, it’s too massive to have been missed. Outside of our solar system and it wouldn’t have any apparent motion and should be visible in other images. And it’s not.
In fact, searching the various databases from which Google Sky draws its data (SDSS, DSS, HST, IRAS, and WMAP), the killer asteroid doesn’t appear at all. Thus, it would seem that this object is nothing more than a technical glitch introduced by Google’s stitching together of images. Sorry conspiracy theorists. No Planet X or Nibiru out there this time!
Yes, it’s coming. Yes, it’s big. Yes, it will be even closer than the Moon. And yes… we’re completely safe.
The 400-meter-wide asteroid 2005 YU55 is currently zipping through the inner Solar System at over 13 km (8 miles) a second. On Tuesday, November 8, at 6:28 p.m. EST, it will pass Earth, coming within 325,000 km (202,000 miles). This is indeed within the Moon’s orbit (although YU55’s trajectory puts it a bit above the exact plane of the Earth-Moon alignment.) Still, it is the closest pass by such a large object since 1976… yet, NASA scientists aren’t concerned. Why?
Because its orbit has been well studied, there’s nothing in its way, and frankly there’s simply nothing it will do to affect Earth.
2005 YU55’s miniscule gravity will not cause earthquakes. It has no magnetic field. It will not strike another object, or the Moon, or the Earth. It will not come into contact with cometary debris, Elenin, a black dwarf, Planet X, or Nibiru. (Not that those last three even exist.) No, YU55 will do exactly what it’s doing right now: passing through the Solar System. It will come, it will go, and hopefully NASA scientists – as well as many amateur astronomers worldwide – will have a chance to get a good look at it as it passes.
Scientists with NASA’s Near-Earth Objects Observation Program will begin tracking YU55 on Friday, November 4 using the 70-meter radar telescope at the Deep Space Network in Goldstone, California , as well as with the Arecibo Planetary Radar Facility in Puerto Rico beginning November 8. These facilities will continue to track it until the 10th.
This close pass will offer a great opportunity to get detailed radar imaging of YU55, an ancient C-type asteroid literally darker than coal. Since these objects can be difficult to observe using visible light, radar mapping can better reveal details about their surface and composition.
To help inform the public about YU55 NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena recently hosted a live Q&A session on Ustream featuring specialists Marina Brozovic, a Goldstone Radar Team scientist, and Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program. They fielded questions sent in via chat and Twitter… a recording of the event in its entirety can be seen below:
Undoubtedly there will still be those who continue to spread misinformation about 2005 YU55. After all, they did the same with the now-disintegrated comet Elenin. But the truth is out there… and the truth is that there’s no danger, no cover-ups, no “plots”, and simply no cause for concern.
UPDATE: JPL has released a brief video about YU55 featuring research scientist Lance Benner, who specializes in radar imaging of near-Earth objects:
Although classified as a potentially hazardous object, 2005 YU55 poses no threat of an Earth collision over at least the next 100 years. However, this will be the closest approach to date by an object this large that we know about in advance and an event of this type will not happen again until 2028 when asteroid (153814) 2001 WN5 will pass to within 0.6 lunar distances. – Near-Earth Object Program, JPL
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).
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.”