There's No Planet X
May 19, 2011 --
Time to break out the champagne and party hats because it's that time of year once again: doomsday. Now Judgment Day doesn't always come once a year. In fact, it's often much more frequent than that. But that doesn't mean that all apocalypses are created equal. While waiting for the end of the world, why not take a look at some of the most famous doomsday predictions in history? We'll begin with the most imminent doomsday prediction: May 21. Pastor Harold Camping, president of Family Radio, is convinced that, after decoding passages in the Bible, the Rapture will take place on May 21, 2011, an event ushered in by an unprecedented global earthquake. The world will cease to exist five months later on October 21, 2011. Camping has a small, but dedicated following that feels it is their duty to warn nonbelievers of the impending apocalypse. So they travel around the country with signs, hats, painted buses and reading materials all advertising impending doom. When asked if he had considered what he might do when May 22 rolls around, Camping told NPR: "There is no Plan B." Despite his faith in his convictions, Camping has been wrong before. He first predicted the end of the world in 1994, which he insists was a premature assessment since he had not completed his Bible research.
The Large Hadron Collider is on the cutting edge of physics, and it may help unlock the mysteries of our universe. It has already set records for particle collisions. It has not, however, yet caused the end of the world, as many feared the LHC would when it fired up in September 2009. Doomsayers had alleged that the LHC could create a small black hole that would become a huge black hole that would eat the planet.
When the clock moved from 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31, 1999, and struck midnight, all of the computers in the world mistakenly believed that the year 2000 was in fact the year 1900. The stock market fell into chaos, planes fell out of the sky, and nuclear silos launched their missiles. Or at least that's the way it was supposed to happen, according to some doomsayers. It turned out the first year of the new millennium arrived without a hitch -- just like the 1,000 years that preceded it.
In 1555, Nostradamus predicted that the world would come to an end 444 years later -- possibly. Given the cryptic nature of his writings, it's difficult to determine what exactly he thought was going to happen in 1999. Point is: It didn't.
Not all religious predictions of the end of the world are rooted in the Bible. Heaven's Gate, a cult that first appeared in the 1970s and was based out of San Diego, Calif., believed that the end of the world was approaching. Furthermore, they were convinced that the Comet Hale-Bopp was actually being tailed by a UFO upon which they could escape the impending apocalypse. To board the ship, a group of 39 members of Heaven's Gate committed mass suicide in March of 1997. The comet continued its journey through the cosmos and the Earth was left behind in the same shape as always.
What happens when a NASA engineer dabbles in doomsday prophecies? The same thing that happens when anyone else dabbles in doomsday prophecies. Edgar Whisenant, a NASA employee, published a book called "88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988," which was a bestseller. In it, Whisenant looked for the same kinds of numerical clues in the Bible that Camping uses to predict his May 21 doomsday. Whisenant's conclusion, however, was that the world was set to end in September 1988. The days came and went, and Whisenant attempted to revise his prediction several times. But unlike Camping, Whisenant appears to have lost credibility after his first doomsday came and went.
In the 1974 bestselller The Jupiter Effect, authors John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann predicted that an alignment of the planets on March 10, 1982, would throw our global climate into chaos. Although the enormous storms and massive change in the speed of Earth's rotation never came to fruition on that day, there was one observed -- and unexpected -- global change that could be associated with the event: High tides on that day were .04 millimeters higher. Similar theories tying planetary alignments to doomsday have cropped up since, the most famous of which was supposed to occur when Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn lined up with the sun and the moon on May 5, 2000.
After Joseph Smith founded Mormonism in the 1820s, he didn't have much time to get his fledgling religion off the ground. After all, years later in 1835 he predicted that the world was set to end within 56 years. Mormons, however, contend that Smith's sermon in 1835 was misinterpreted and was not in fact an end-times prediction, asserting that Smith had previously stated he didn't know the date of the Second Coming.
If you think the party's over after May 21, you'd be wrong. We've got plenty more doomsdays coming up. 2012 is in fact chocked full of doomsday theories, the most famous of which being the prediction attributed to the Mayans that foretells the end of the world to be Dec. 21, 2012. How the Mayan apocalypse will play out is much debated among doomsday believers. Everything from a solar flare to a collision with a mysterious planet has been suggested as a possible end-times scenario.
If you manage to stick around until 2060, then you'll be just in time to see this final doomsday scenario play out. A handwritten scribbling on a note left behind by this famous face predicted as such. And who is this puffy haired maniac who declared the end of the world in 2060? None other than Sir Isaac Newton.
There's no evidence for the existence of Planet X, despite a NASA space telescope’s best efforts to track it down.
The hypothetical world that may or may not be orbiting the sun beyond the orbit of Pluto has inspired many a doomsday theory. In the run-up to the much anticipated “Mayan Doomsday” of Dec. 21, 2012, the marauding Planet X was scheduled to make a inner-solar system dash, sparking gravitational mayhem, triggering civilization-ending solar flares. Some doomsayers held onto the crackpot notion that Planet X could be the fictional planet “Nibiru” that is inhabited by the Annunaki, an alien race hellbent on re-claiming Earth as their own.
15 months later, we all know how that alien invasion went — apparently we won.
All this doomsday nonsense to one side, the hunt for “Planet X” actually has roots in real science. In the mid- to late-19th Century, astronomers were tracking the gravitational perturbations of the gas giant planets in an effort to track down an undiscovered world in the outermost reaches of the solar system — this hypothetical massive planet was dubbed “Planet X.” However, this fascinating trail of discovery ended at the discovery of tiny Pluto in 1930. Lacking the gravitational oomph to explain the gravitational perturbations, it turned out that Pluto wasn’t the Planet X astronomers thought it would be. After the realization that the gravitational perturbations observed were more likely observational error, Planet X became a story of legend.
The idea that the sun may have a stellar partner has also been investigated — perhaps there’s a brown dwarf (a failed star) going unnoticed out there. Nicknamed “Nemesis,” this binary partner could be evading detection.
A few oddities in the outer solar system have given astronomers pause to think that something massive might be lurking out there, however, whether it be a massive planet or sub-standard star. One strong piece of evidence laid in the discovery of the “Kuiper Cliff,” a sudden drop-off of Kuiper Belt objects in the region just beyond Pluto. Could the Cliff be caused by a previously overlooked world? Also, geological record has suggested there’s a regularity to mass extinctions on Earth linked to comet impacts — could a distant orbiting body be perturbing comets, sending them our way on a cyclical basis?
“The outer solar system probably does not contain a large gas giant planet, or a small, companion star,” said Kevin Luhman of the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State University, University Park, Pa.
Luhman and his team have analyzed data from NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), a space telescope that carried out a detailed infrared survey of the entire sky from 2010 to 2011. If something big is lurking out there, WISE would easily have spotted it. Alas, WISE has turned up no Planet X candidate. Previous observations by WISE have also ruled out the Planet X-comet perturbation theory.
According to a NASA news release, “no object the size of Saturn or larger exists out to a distance of 10,000 astronomical units (AU), and no object larger than Jupiter exists out to 26,000 AU. One astronomical unit equals 93 million miles. Earth is 1 AU, and Pluto about 40 AU, from the sun.”
However, the modern search for a Planet X was never WISE’s prime mission. In a second study, the discovery of 3,525 stars and brown dwarfs within 500 light-years of the sun are detailed. In cosmic distances, these objects are right on our galactic doorstep. Both studies have been published in The Astrophysical Journal.
“Neighboring star systems that have been hiding in plain sight just jump out in the WISE data,” said WISE principal investigator Ned Wright of the University of California, Los Angeles.
During its prime mission, WISE was able to capture two full scans of the infrared sky approximately 6 months apart. By comparing the positions of objects in the two scans, astronomers are able to deduce how much the objects have moved. The greater the positional shift, the closer the object is to Earth. This is known as the parallax effect and provides astronomers with a valuable tool to detect how close a celestial object is to Earth.
When WISE’s cryogenic helium ran dry, its primary mission came to an end, but late last year, the space telescope was rebooted to continue to search for the infrared signals of near-Earth objects and renamed NEOWISE.