Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Giant Meteor 2017?

During the 2016 Presidential Election, some of the folks who disliked both major party candidates came up with bumper stickers reading "Giant Meteor 2016." According to a Russian astronomer, all they got wrong was the date, because an asteroid is in fact due to collide with Earth on the 16th of this month. However, none of the data compiled by NASA on the object suggests that we are in any danger.

The object, known as 2016 WF9, is hurtling towards Earth and is being tracked by NASA. NASA says the object, which could be a comet or an asteroid, will safely pass Earth at a distance of nearly 32 million miles on February 25.

But Russian astronomer Dr Dyomin Damir Zakharovich has said the space agency is wrong. Dr Zakharovich believes the object could hit on February 16 sparking catastrophic tsunamis and causing the planet’s seas to boil.

The Russian says the mysterious object comes from the rogue planet Niburu, also called Planet X, on the edge of the solar system. Conspiracy theorists have long claimed Planet X will destroy Earth in 2017 and it is often blamed for natural disasters.

Dr Zakharovich said: “The object they call WF9 left the Nibiru system in October when Nibiru began spinning counter clockwise around the sun. Since then, NASA has known it will hit Earth. But they are only telling people now. We are all in peril.”

Let's put that in perspective. 32 million miles is really, really far away. Earth is 93 million miles from the Sun. At its closest point, the planet Venus is about 25 million miles from Earth. So it makes about as much sense to worry about Venus striking the Earth than it does to worry about this asteroid - that is, none at all. For reference, the Moon is about a quarter million miles away. You know, way closer.

The "Nibiru" nonsense comes from an old conspiracy theory regarding an alleged planet that is supposed to have a highly irregular orbit. Nobody's ever observed it because it currently is far out on the edge of the solar system, but it is going to loop back in and cause a whole mess of natural disasters by passing close to Earth any day now, which has been the state of affairs pretty much since the idea was proposed.

Astronomers now think there might be one more large planet way out in the Kuipper Belt. If it exists, they think that it likely would be a gas giant similar to Uranus and Neptune. But there's no evidence that Kuipper belt objects have orbits taking them near any of the inner planets. Pluto's orbit barely crosses Neptune's at one point, and that's about it.

If 2016 WF9 were to strike the Earth, it certainly would cause natural disasters like those described by Zakharovich. It is believed to be 0.3 to 0.6 miles across, which is easily large enough to pass through the atmosphere and massive enough to cause serious damage. The largest meteor impact of the modern era was the Tunguska event of 1908, which fortunately did not hit a populated area.

Depending on the estimates you use, the Tunguska explosion was as much as a thousand times the power of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, and was caused by an object that was at most 0.1 miles across. That means an impact with 2016 WF9 would truly be catastrophic, so it's a good thing that according to all available data it isn't going to happen.

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