Beware of People Wearing Tin Foil Hats – Comet Elenin

As an astronomer, I hear all kinds of crazy conspiracy theories about what the government and scientists are trying to hide from the general public. I can’t speak about what the government may or may not hide, but I can say that by and large scientists don’t much care about the opinion of the general public when it comes to their assessment of data and the analysis of what those data imply about our Universe. First and foremost, we are beholden to data collected through methods that can be replicated and verified by others. This is where the “Comet Elenin is a space ship” or “Comet Elenin is a dwarf star” or “Comet Elenin is going to strike the Earth” conspiracies fail.

Comet Hale-Bopp imaged by my predecessor Paul Tebbe.
As with many other conspiracy manifestos and ramblings, the YouTube videos I’ve seen regarding Comet Elenin have been more like Star Trek technobabble than science. It seems as though people pull a word from here, a piece of jargon from there, and try to stitch together the biggest gloom-and-doom story imaginable. The fact is, there are a lot of highly trained and skilled eyeballs on this comet. It was originally hoped that since it was to come reasonably close to Earth, 90 Lunar orbital radii, that it might provide a nice show in our night skies much like Comet Hale-Bopp did in 1997. Unforutunately, Elenin appears to have fragmented and faded in intensity. No awesome comet show for us. However, there won’t be any world-ending catastrophe, either!

Comet Elenin is a space ship:
Ok, if someone actually believes this, I don’t think there’s anything that can be said to dissuade them short of actually taking them to the comet and letting them stand on its surface themselves. …but then perhaps even that won’t do it. All I can say is that it looks like a comet, acts like a comet, and orbits like a comet.

Comet Elenin is a dwarf star:
A comet is an icy body which appears to us as a fuzzy ball with an extending tail as the comet approaches the Sun. The sunlight heats up the sunward side of the comet causing the ice to vaporize creating a temporary atmosphere of sorts for the comet nucleus. The dust and gas released from the surface of the comet as the volitiles (water, carbon dioxide, cyanogen) vaporize are blown back by the solar wind, creating the tail structure. A dwarf star by comparison is a …well… STAR. Its a ball of incandescent gas made hot by thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen at its core. The smallest of these, a brown dwarf, although small by stellar standards are still at least 80x the size of Jupiter. Comet Elenin is most definitely NOT a dwarf star.

Comet Elenin is going to impact the Earth:
While having an extraterrestrial impactor strike our planet, either a comet or asteroid, will likely occur at some time in the future, it’s not going to happen with Comet Elenin. Comet and asteroid strikes are a large concern to the scientific community and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has a Near-Earth Object (NEO) program in place to identify and track potentially hazardous objects. You can read more about Comet Elenin’s trajectory on JPL’s Asteroid Watch.

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