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Doomsday scenarios about comet impacts or planetary alignments keeping you up at night? Here's a quick guide to whether or not you really need to worry about them.
OUT OF THIS WORLD | For Science! - a weekly look at the weird, wonderful and sometimes wacky side of science and technology

No, an asteroid or comet will NOT strike Earth in September

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Thursday, May 28, 2015, 6:00 AM - Still hearing about an asteroid or comet "doomsday" scenario that is supposed to befall Earth next month? Here's a quick guide to whether or not you really need to worry about this. (Hint: you don't)

Every time we turn around, there seems to be yet another doomsday scenario that's supposed to play out - be it a planetary alignment, asteroid impact or even a planet wandering through our solar system.

The people reporting these scenarios seem to be pretty sincere about the threat, so how do we know if we need to worry?

A very quick guide for this is simply the fact that there have been countless prophecies of doom from the skies over the years, and yet we're still here.

Take, for example, the two most prolific doomsday messages currently on the internet: 

September 2015 "Impact"

A rumor being spread around at the moment says that on (or perhaps around) Sept 24, 2015, a well-known asteroid or comet – which, according to some, measures about 2.5 miles wide and is emitting "hellish" noises – is apparently going to strike the Earth.

While that would certainly be a devastating event, the details just don't add up for this either.

The only known asteroid flying by Earth on that day is a 200-m wide rock named 2012 TT5. However, as this view of the asteroid's orbit compared to Earth and the Moon shows, the closest it gets is over 8 million kilometres away, or over 21 times farther away than the Moon.

Courtesy: Celestia, with edits by author.

The details being reported about the object in question – the size and reports that it's making noises – match some of the details of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko - the comet currently being orbited by the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft.

The larger of the two "lobes" of this duck-shaped comet is 2.5 miles across (4.1 km), and last November, the Rosetta science team did report that the comet sings, however that's as close as the claims get.

According to the video, someone "in the know" has told the person that the information being reported on the object, specifically about its orbit, is incorrect. However, this kind of information is not gathered and disseminated by just one agency, be it NASA, the ESA or whatever. There is a network of thousands of amateur and professional astronomers, all around the world, that make observations every night and report on objects - both known and newly discovered - and it's these observations that go into the databases of NASA and other agencies. With so many people involved, there would be no point in misrepresenting or misreporting an object's orbit. Maintaining some kind of "conspiracy" would be impossible.

The fact here is that the orbit of Comet 67P is very well known, as astronomers have watched it swing around the Sun every 6.5 years or so, since it was discovered in September of 1969. The comet never crosses Earth’s orbit, ever, and the closest it gets to us in 2015 is over 264 million kilometres away, or 1.768 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

Credit: European Space Agency, with edits by author.

May 28 "Planetary Alignment"

Another story, this time via a video on YouTube entitled Global Coastal Event on May 28, 2015 (now removed by the user), was reporting that an apparent planetary alignment between the Sun, Mercury and Saturn (along with two other alignments that are supposed to augment its effects) would align directly between the Earth and the Moon on Thursday, May 28, 2015.

Quoting Nostradamus, who wrote in one of his quatrains of a "mighty trembling" in May and mentioned Saturn, Jupiter, Mercury, Venus and Mars in specific constellations, the video suggested that this alignment would upset the balance between the Earth and Moon, and heralded a magnitude 9.8 earthquake on the west coast of the United States.

Here's the view of our solar system that was presented in the video, using the online simulator Solar System Scope, with an arrow in the same position as in the video, denoting this supposed alignment.

Credit: Solar System Scope, with edits by author.

The alignment certainly looks legitimate, however note the circled portion of the simulator to the left. This particular view of the solar system exaggerates the size of the planets, just to make them stand out against each other better.

Below is the exact same view, switched to the "Realistic" view:

Credit: Solar System Scope, with edits by author.

As you can see, the Earth moves far off the line of that alignment, so that it's not even close. Also, the size of the Moon's orbit is exaggerated in the "Large" view as well, so much so that in the "Realistic" view, the orbit can't even be picked out from the tiny dot that represents Earth.

So, there is no planetary alignment between the Sun, Mercury and Saturn on that day (note that even the Sun also moves out of alignment when the "Realistic" view is used) and even if there was, the alignment wouldn't include Earth or the Moon.

Also, try going to Solar System Scope and test out other "alignments" from the video - especially the claim that an alignment between Mars and Mercury passing directly between the Earth and the Moon on April 25 influenced the Nepal earthquake on that date. Switching between "Large" and "Realistic" sizes also removes Earth and the Moon from being anywhere near that alignment.

Credit: Solar System Scope, with edits by author.

There's are a few deeper, more fundamental problems with the claims in the video, though.

First, quoting from Nostradamus is highly suspect. The quatrains in any English version of The Prophecies depend on inexact translations, meaning that different translators can get different final messages and thus different interpretations. Also, these "prophecies" are highly subjective, meaning different things for different people and so vague that they can be related to very different real world events (and only then, after the fact). Add to this the false quatrains that were constructed after events (like those that supposedly describe the September 11, 2001 attacks) - simply as a joke or even as an attempt to "prove" the validity of his writings - and taking anything Nostradamus wrote down as any herald of the future is not recommended.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, a planetary alignment - no matter which, or how many, planets are stacked up "against us" - is simply not capable of causing an earthquake. The forces involved are just too weak.

While it's true that every object in our solar system exerts a gravitational force on every other object (and this even extends well beyond our solar system as well), if the amount of force they exert was really capable of shifting Earth's crust to trigger an earthquake, the force exerted by the Moon on the Earth - which is many times stronger than the forces from all the other planets combined - would cause untold devastation across the surface of the planet as it circled around us. This also applies to any claims about upsetting the balance of forces as well. The solar system is not so precariously balanced that the tiniest force can upset things enough to cause earthquakes.

Simulations have shown that even a stellar-mass black hole, around 15 times the mass of our Sun, would need to get at least as close to us as Jupiter's orbit before we would start to feel the effects here on Earth. The relatively light-weight planets of our solar system just don't have what it takes.

It is true that some studies have found that the Moon can cause a tiny increase in probability of certain kinds of earthquakes, due to its influence on the tides. However, this is due to the Moon's comparatively close-proximity to the Earth, and the weak correlation was only with quakes along faults where one tectonic plate slips under another. The west coast of the US is on a fault where two plates slide back and forth against one another.

So, since there was no alignment at all on the date in question, and even if there was the forces involved would be too weak to significantly affect the Earth, there was just no threat here.

"Planet X" or "Nibiru"

If there’s one object that claims the most doomsday reports, it's Nibiru, which is sometimes referred to as Planet X.

It has become the proverbial "Wolf" to cry out about, whenever a new object appears in our skies. However, despite the claims made about this object, there is no evidence for its existence.

There may be planets beyond the orbit of Neptune and Pluto, perhaps even something a few times larger than the Earth (a Super-Earth), as some astronomers have noted the unusual orbits of dwarf planets Sedna and 2012 VP113. NASA's WISE infrared telescope has found no evidence of anything larger, out to around 600 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. So, the chances of a large planetary object (as Nibiru is reported as being nearly the size of Saturn) existing are quite remote.

Even if such a planet existed, it would simply not fit the narrative of Nibiru, since the story put forward is that this giant planet is supposed to swing past the Earth periodically, causing global catastrophes. If there really is a large planet out beyond Pluto, however, it never comes close to Earth.

The Problem with Hoaxes

Space is dangerous. There are plenty of objects out there that could cause catastrophic damage to our planet. There are people, offices, agencies and corporations that have dedicated themselves to discovering these objects and protecting the Earth, and this is a very important mission to undertake.

The problem with people spreading hoaxes (however well-intentioned they may be), is two-fold. 1) People keep hearing these repeated doomsday messages, become extremely fearful and anxious, and it adversely affects their health (or worse), and 2) the public may become so desensitized that they discount the dangers of space when it really counts - such as when the government tries to fund a planetary defense project, or even when a real asteroid or comet threat looms.

Sources: NASA | Solar System Scope | Discovery | USGS | Space.com

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