Comet catastrophe crap

While the real world worries about the avian flu and Mideast politics, one self-proclaimed expert says he has seen visions of a cosmic catastrophe that will make flu and oil worries irrelevant.

Eric Julien says a piece of comet will hit the Atlantic Ocean on May 25, creating tsunamis and earthquakes. He says messages from aliens and a 1995 crop circle lead him to believe that the impact will wipe out our civilization and kill millions of people.

Humbug.

Julien (also known as Jean Ederman) has managed to combine real science with his own peculiar imagination to concoct a tragedy that can only appeal to those poor souls who distrust real scientists and trust ufologists.

Julien’s only claims to expertise in space science are a series of UFO books and a career in the French air force. He also channels messages from aliens. Julien claims he has studied the orbital path of Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, which has an orbital period of approximately 5.5 years.

Space scientists are also interested in 73P, because the comet split into several pieces in 1995. These fragments — at last count there were 18 — are due to pass through Earth’s neighborhood in mid-May, somewhat earlier than Julien predicts. NASA scientists say the closest approach to Earth of any piece of 73P will be nearly 10 million kilometers (6 million miles) on May 14. By comparison, the moon is 384 000 kilometers (240 000 miles) away, so by those figures the comet fragments will miss by a country mile.

Julien knows better, it seems. He has studied the trajectory of the comet on a NASA website, which has a plot showing the orbit of the comet intersecting the orbit of Earth. (As an aviator, Julien really needs to brush up on his map-reading skills. The scale on solar system maps is like 1 mm = several million km, so two intersecting map lines do not necessarily mean anything really significant.)

But, as they say on TV, that’s not all! Julien has other incontrovertible evidence for an impact. One is a message from his alien confidantes.

I received on April 7, 2006 a telepathic message from extraterrestrial friends. According to them, a méga-tsunami in the Atlantic Ocean I had experienced in a lucid dream three years ago, would occur around MAY 25, 2006.

I once dreamed I had won the Powerball. I’m still waiting for the check …

Another bit of evidence is a crop circle photographed in England in 1995. Supposedly, it portrays a solar system with Earth missing from its orbit. The positions of the planets indicate a date near May 25, Julian asserts. Finally, comet 73P made an earlier appearance in May 25, 1947, the supposed date of the Roswell, NM, UFO crash. The correlation of dates cannot be a coincidence, Julien says.

Wrapped up in his doomsday scenario is an elaborate tale of an alien race’s plans to attack and subjugate Earth, using the comet as the first assault. The May 25 collision will be just a warning to soften us up, Julien says. If we don’t prepare for an alien attack now, human civilization will be wiped out. (Perhaps to make way for an intergalactic superhighway.)

Of course, we know stuff from space — big stuff — has hit Earth in the past. Scientists are quite sure now that an asteroid slammed into the Yucatan peninsula about 65 million years ago, leading to mass extinctions worldwide. The dinosaurs are the poster children for that calamity. Orbital imagery and radar and gravimetric mapping reveal other impact craters all over the globe, hiding under forests, deserts and water.

The early solar system was a busy place. Our moon and Mercury still have their impact craters in plain sight, since they have no air or water to erode their planetary surfaces. Earth’s impact craters have been worn down by weathering and covered up by biology.

Asteroids, meteors and comets belong to a class of space objects called planetesimals. Asteroids are chunks of rock, metals and/or carbon, some as small as boulders, some as large as small counties. Meteorites are smaller chunks of similar stuff that survive zipping through the atmosphere at speeds over 11 km/s (25 000 mph). We are peppered by meteors daily, but the vast majority burn up before they reach the ground. Asteroid impacts are, thankfully, extremely rare.

Comets are a different breed entirely. They are basically “dirty snowballs,” mixtures of rock, dust and ice (not just water ice — there’s frozen gases in them, too) that wheel around the sun in elongated orbits. During most of their orbital periods, they are inert, dim and dull. When they approach the sun, however, the heat turns the comets’ ice into gas and vapor, which surround the heads of the comets in a haze called the coma. Meanwhile, the solar wind pushes the gas and vapor cloud into space, creating a long tail that can be millions of kilometers long.

Under the right conditions, a comet can be an awesome sight as it looms above the horizon at dawn or dusk with a long, bright tail. Comets are frequently associated with meteor showers, as meteors sometimes accompany the comets in their orbits.

Two astronomers, Arnold Schwassmann and Arno Arthur Wachmann of Hamburg Observatory, Bergedorf, Germany, discovered comet 73P in May 1930 on photographic plates. At the time, the comet was closer to Earth than it will be next month. Japanese observers reported a meteor shower in June of that year, and we may well have a meteor shower next month.

During the 1995 apparition, observers noted that comet 73P had fragmented, apparently as it passed by the sun. (Comets lose a lot of material each time they approach the sun.) Five fragments were eventually observed by the end of 1995, and nine more had been discovered as the comet approached its 2006 apparition. (Details are here.) Because of their inertia, the fragments are following the original orbit of the comet.
This earth-based photograph shows four fragments, labeled from left, B, G, R and N. (I have increased the brightness of the image to show the labels better.) You can see the characteristic fuzziness and tail features of comets in the image.

april 2006 image Photo Copyright©2006 by M. Jäger and G. Rhemann (Austria)

Like asteroids and meteorites, comets have probably also hit the earth. The 1908 explosion in Tunguska, Siberia, Russia, may have been the result of a comet exploding from the heat of atmospheric entry before it reached the ground. Entire forests were leveled and the noise could be heard for miles. While impressive, the event was not globally catastrophic.

But comets are not as dangerous as asteroids or large meteorites. They are less dense, since they are mostly ice. Air friction would destroy them far above the Earth’s surface, as happened in 1908. If pieces of Comet 73P “hit” Earth, they are unlikely to create the tsunamis and earthquakes that Julien predicts. Such events need a heftier object.

Space scientists, recognizing the statistical probability that a large object will eventually hit our world, track planetesimals pretty closely now. An impact is not an impossible event, but we do not know when it might happen. The May apparition is not going to be the Big One, though. Julien’s evidence is, frankly, not exactly compelling. So, rest easy, dear reader. May 26 will roll along just as always.

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