There's no reason you should be familiar with comet C/2010 X1 "Elenin." It's a relatively small ball of ice that's scheduled to pass us at a distance of 21 million miles on October 16th. If you are familiar with Elenin, it's either because you're an obsessive sky watcher, or because you've been reading too many doomsday and conspiracy websites.
Here are the facts: comet Elenin was discovered in December of last year. Its nucleus is probably about two miles across. In mid-October, it will get as close to Earth as the planet Venus does, at which point it may be visible as a very faint and blurry little smudge in the constellation Leo. After that, Elenin will whip around the sun and head back out to the outer solar system, and we won't see it for another 12,000 years or so. In other words, this is a fairly typical comet.
What is less typical is the sheer volume of conspiracy theories that have oozed up surrounding the approach of Elenin. These are some of my faves, which I'm not going to dignify with a link (but they're easy to find):
- Comet Elenin is in fact a brown dwarf the size of Jupiter, its name begins with "Ele" because that stands for "Extinction Level Event," and NASA has been covering it up while building secret comet shelters for VIPs.
- Comet Elenin is bringing the end of the world as prophesied by the Mayan calendar.
- Comet Elenin is responsible for both the 2011 Japan earthquake and the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.
- Comet Elenin is the object that a lady with an alien brain implant was told told about in 2003, and when it passes Earth it will cause a pole shift that will destroy most of humanity.
Of course, this kind of thing happens pretty much every time any comet so much as sneezes, but there was enough hullabaloo about Elenin that NASA saw fit to debunk many of the rumors themselves in this amusing Q&A press release, in which NASA tries very hard not to sound totally exasperated that it has to take the time to make this stuff clear to people. Here we'll break down a few of the more pressing questions, including their hilarious NASA responses.
Can this comet influence us from where it is, or where it will be in the future? Can this celestial object cause shifting of the tides or even tectonic plates here on Earth?
"Any approximate alignments of comet Elenin with other celestial bodies are meaningless, and the comet will not encounter any dark bodies that could perturb its orbit, nor will it influence us in any way here on Earth," said Don Yeomans, a scientist at NASA JPL.
"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."
I've heard about three days of darkness because of Comet Elenin. Will Elenin block out the sun for three days?
"As seen from the Earth, comet Elenin will not cross the sun's face," says Yeomans. For a comet with a diameter of about 2-3 miles (3-5 kilometers) to cover the sun it would have to be within 250 miles (400 kilometers), roughly the orbital altitude of the International Space Station. However, as stated above, this comet will come no closer to Earth than 22 million miles.
I've heard there is a "brown dwarf" theory about Comet Elenin.
Morrison says that there is no 'brown dwarf theory' of this comet. "A comet is nothing like a brown dwarf. Comets are far too small to have a measureable influence on anything."
This comet has been called 'wimpy' by NASA scientists. Why?
"We're talking about how a comet looks as it safely flies past us," said Yeomans. "Some cometary visitors arriving from beyond the planetary region - like Hale-Bopp in 1997 -- have really lit up the night sky where you can see them easily with the naked eye as they safely transit the inner-solar system. But Elenin is trending toward the other end of the spectrum. You'll probably need a good pair of binoculars, clear skies and a dark, secluded location to see it even on its brightest night."
Come to think of it, it's strange that NASA's focusing on this insignificant event. Maybe they are trying to cover something up. Excuse me, I need to go re-check the expiration dates on the 50,000 cans of Spam I have in my emergency anti-comet safe house. Yes, I have one of those, don't you?