You may have seen the scary headlines. You may have read those alarming emails. But do you believe it? Just in case, NASA has issued the facts about a comet called Elenin. And no, these aren't the "facts" doomsayers will tell you.
In short, the 3-5 kilometer-wide comet can't hurt us. Really, it can't. It's too small and its closest approach to Earth will bring it 90 times the Earth-moon distance. 90 times the Earth-moon distance. That's a whopping 35 million kilometers (22 million miles) away. Could there be any conceivable impact to our everyday lives by this dirty snowball?
I seriously doubt this will calm the overactive imaginations of some conspiracy theorists, but NASA has felt the need to respond to the crazy theories being flung around and to address some of the more rational questions. (NASA did a similar thing in 2009 when responding to the 2012 doomsday nonsense, issuing a statement that there was no known astronomical reason for the end of the world on Dec. 21, 2012.)
Helpfully, two NASA scientists have been hard at work over the past few months responding to questions from the public. Yesterday, NASA compiled some of the most popular questions, creating an "everything you ever needed to know about Comet Elenin" Q&A.
The Elenin answers were provided by Don Yeomans of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and David Morrison of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. Morrison is no stranger to responding to these kinds of questions, having become NASA's in-house 2012 doomsday debunker.
It seems that doomsday theorists and astrologers alike believe that any celestial object, no matter how small or distant, can have some magical influence on Earth. Fortunately, this isn't true.
"So you've got a modest-sized icy dirtball that is getting no closer than 35 million kilometers," said Yeomans. "It will have an immeasurably minuscule influence on our planet. By comparison, my subcompact automobile exerts a greater influence on the ocean's tides than comet Elenin ever will."
Interestingly, the "marauding brown dwarf doomsday theory" has cropped up again, and in one question it's been tied in with the appearance of comet Elenin. If Elenin is actually a brown dwarf, surely that will have a huge gravitational influence on the solar system, right?
"A comet is nothing like a brown dwarf. You are correct that the way astronomers measure the mass of one object is by its gravitational effect on another, but comets are far too small to have a measurable influence on anything," Morrison replied.
But why isn't NASA talking about Elenin more? "Comet Elenin hasn't received much press precisely because it is small and faint," said the NASA press release. "Several new comets are discovered each year, and you don't normally hear about them either."
"The truth is that Elenin has received much more attention than it deserves due to a variety of Internet postings that are untrue."
So there you have it, every reason in the world why Comet Elenin is a benign threat to our planet.
In related news, the Daily Mail has published an overly excited article about the European Space Agency's upcoming mission to bring Armageddon to an asteroid. (And yes, they mention Bruce Willis more than once. Sigh.) However, it is hard to see where the "news" is.
The article discusses the proposed ESA mission "Don Quijote" - intended to deflect a small asteroid with a high-speed impactor (although, according to the article, ESA wants to "blow up" said asteroid. Needless to say, the Daily Mail embellished that bit.) But, according to the ESA mission site, which hasn't been updated since 2009, Don Quijote appears to be in the preliminary phase.
Asteroid deflection will be a very important tool in the Earth's cosmic protection armory, but until there's any actual news about an asteroid deflection mission becoming a reality, Discovery News will wait... until there's news.