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Space Science

Earth Under Threat From Dark Comets 149

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the summon-bruce-willis dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Comets could be the most significant impact hazard to Earth, with sky surveys underestimating the number that are potentially devastating by a factor of between 10 and 100, UK astrophysicists say."
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Earth Under Threat From Dark Comets

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  • Slashdotted (Score:3, Funny)

    by Spazztastic (814296) <spazztastic@@@gmail...com> on Monday February 16, 2009 @11:44AM (#26872759)
    Already down. There goes my chance of calling FUD.
    • Re:Slashdotted (Score:5, Informative)

      by morgan_greywolf (835522) on Monday February 16, 2009 @11:49AM (#26872813) Homepage Journal

      Here we go, try this article from New Scientist [newscientist.com], which has the same story.

      Hazardous comets and asteroids are monitored by various space agencies under an umbrella effort known as Spaceguard. The vast majority of objects found so far are rocky asteroids. Yet UK-based astronomers Bill Napier at Cardiff University and David Asher at Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland claim that many comets could be going undetected. "There is a case to be made that dark, dormant comets are a significant but largely unseen hazard," says Napier.

      The article goes on to say that "dark comets are not unheard of. They occur when an 'active' comet's reflective water ice has evaporated away, leaving behind an organic crust that only reflects a small fraction of light."

      • An organic crust? Produced by space borne microbes or what?

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by needs2bfree (1256494)
          Organic != made by life. Means nonmetals, so Carbon, Nitrogen Sulfur and related compounds.
          Disclaimer: IANAC (I Am Not A Chemist)
          • Re:Slashdotted (Score:5, Informative)

            by dkf (304284) <donal.k.fellows@manchester.ac.uk> on Monday February 16, 2009 @12:18PM (#26873229) Homepage

            Organic != made by life. Means nonmetals, so Carbon, Nitrogen Sulfur and related compounds.

            It specifically means Carbon. There's really quite a bit of it about in space, and the process of evaporating off all the ice from the comet will mean that that which is there has been thoroughly concentrated to make something rather like soot. Such materials, especially in ultra-low gravity environments (so preventing the collapse of complicated micro-strucutres), are incredibly black, making the comet harder to see than a black cat in a coal cellar. At night with no torch.

            The New Scientist article goes on to mention that the best hope of spotting these things may be in the infra-red range, as they'll be absorbing all the sunlight that falls on them and reradiating it. Sounds tricky to me, but just might work...

            • No torch? (Score:5, Funny)

              by PeeAitchPee (712652) on Monday February 16, 2009 @12:36PM (#26873433)

              are incredibly black, making the comet harder to see than a black cat in a coal cellar. At night with no torch.

              Who uses torches in their "coal cellar"? What are you looking for, Frankenstein? ;-)

              • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

                by mengel (13619)
                In places that speak the Queen's English, rather than American, a device with batteries and a light bulb is called a "torch", rather than a "flashlight".
                • Hence the winking smiley. I guess I wasn't obvious enough.
                  • by Ray (88211) on Monday February 16, 2009 @01:50PM (#26874493)

                    Way too subtle. Remember, speakers of "the Queen's English" require giant, cartoon stomping feet to indicate humorous content is about to follow.

                    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

                      Monty Python? Benny Hill? Blackadder? Douglas Adams? Rowan Atkinson?

                      Subtle innuendo has long been a staple of British humour.

                    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

                      by aliquis (678370)

                      ... and that comes from a guy who lives (?) in the country where they must add laughter to the TV series so you know there may have been something funny even if you didn't got it.

                    • by Goaway (82658)

                      What did you think that "giant, cartoon stomping feet" was a reference to, anyway?

                    • They haven't added laugh tracks to TV shows in years...

                    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

                      by Anonymous Coward
                      They're about as subtle as an elephant sneaking around in a ninja costume.
                    • by Prefader (1072814)
                      Are you sure? I'm fairly certain that, outside of satirical use of a laugh track, a lot of shows still pad the audience reactions with canned laughter if the audience doesn't react quite the way the producers hoped they would. I do think it would be hard to tell, and I'm mostly basing this off assumption.

                      I will say that I'm almost certain that Chappelle's Show had at least some canned laughter inserted. It was a bit too well-timed and consistent to have been natural. If it was meant as satire, it obv
                    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

                      by ChatHuant (801522)

                      Monty Python? Benny Hill? Blackadder? Douglas Adams? Rowan Atkinson?

                      Subtle innuendo has long been a staple of British humour

                      Benny Hill? Subtle innuendo? What are you, French?

                    • by scotch (102596)
                      Stomping foot?
                    • by StikyPad (445176)

                      Pretty much every sitcom for kids uses a laugh track. Real kids would laugh at inappropriate times, and real adults wouldn't laugh at all. I swear to God, if my kids ever want to watch Nickelodeon, I've failed.

                    • by StikyPad (445176)

                      You mean like Red Dwarf [wikipedia.org]? Or Last of the Summer Wine [wikipedia.org]? Most British comedies either use, or sound like they use, laugh tracks, although I can't find an authoritative list anywhere. The technique pretty much died in the 90s here in the "colonies," aside from in kids' shows and when used as satire.

                    • by Golddess (1361003)
                      You must not watch a lot of CBS...
                • The GP was attempting to be funny, because even here in sunny old England, a torch is also a flaming device, such as the Olympic torch.
                • by HTH NE1 (675604)

                  In places that speak the Queen's English, rather than American, a device with batteries and a light bulb is called a "torch", rather than a "flashlight".

                  I thought we called them "flashlights" because they traditionally include a momentary switch one can use to turn the light off briefly without wearing out the sliding power switch (i.e. make them "flash"), but apparently (and according to Wikipedia [wikipedia.org]) it was due to problems with the earliest models' choice of filament (inefficient carbon) and battery (zinc-carbon, which had difficulty sustaining current) only being able to operate for brief periods (flashes).

                  And speaking of the Wiki, Lumencraft's Gatlight [lumencraft.net] res

              • "black than the blackest black times infinity" -Nathan Explosion
              • You know you are likely to be eaten by a Grue.

                http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4nigRT2KmCE [youtube.com]

            • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

              by linnorm (92823)

              Such materials, especially in ultra-low gravity environments (so preventing the collapse of complicated micro-strucutres), are incredibly black, making the comet harder to see than a black cat in a coal cellar. At night with no torch.

              How much more black could they be?

    • by mfh (56) on Monday February 16, 2009 @11:50AM (#26872821) Journal

      It's down for a sinister reason! They don't want us to READ the articles and become informed of the truth!!!

      Also, why the racism? Just because the comets are DARK doesn't mean they are evil. RACISTS!

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by clang_jangle (975789)
      Try this [space.com] one instead.
  • by mfh (56)

    We need to destroy these communist comets before they damage our strong and beloved economy!

    • by rbanffy (584143)

      You know... This is not as absurd as it may sound.

      Dark comets are black to visible light, but if we could tune a nuke to produce whatever wavelengths they do reflect (and they do reflect some or they would be radiating a lot of infrared), we could detonate a few in deep space to track the reflections.

      Of course, we would need better observation capabilities - we would be observing large patches of sky in search for perhaps very faint reflections for the first pulses and then zero in the regions where the ori

  • by IamGarageGuy 2 (687655) on Monday February 16, 2009 @11:46AM (#26872777) Journal
    C'mon, there are hundreds of ways for me to die everyday. If I have to start worrying about the sky falling on me, I might as well pack it in now.
    • Hey! Look up there! Watch out for that

    • by norppalaho (878422) on Monday February 16, 2009 @11:53AM (#26872875) Homepage

      ...If I have to start worrying about the sky falling on me...

      Vitalstatistix, Is that you?

    • by Fumus (1258966)
      Dark energy, dark matter, dark comets... What next? Dark chairs?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Chabil Ha' (875116)

      My wife is a worry-wart and I use this argument against my spouse for doing things: I could walk outside and have my head replaced by a falling meteor. Does that mean that I shouldn't go out today? The chances for that are enormous to the point of why should I even worry about it? I can't let the possibility of bad things happening overshadow the probability. Probability is what we should be using in risk modeling, not possibility, because hey, anything is possible .

      I mean hey, with the crash of that

      • by wilhelm (5091)
        You've hit the nail squarely on the head. It's just another piece of our culture of fear. I, for one, do NOT welcome our "ZOMG, you might die!!!" overlords.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Teun (17872)
        According to all Hollywood studies it would be safest to leave the USofA...
      • It's unlikely, but not impossible that the Earth be struck by an astronomical object large enough to wipe out life as we know it today, tomorrow, or even in your lifetime. In the fullness of time however it's not just likely, it's certain.

        That's what it's like when you play the odds. The likelihood of any two satellites colliding in orbit is very low, the odds of two submarines colliding in the vast ocean are also unlikely. But roll the dice long enough and they'll come up boxcars twelve times in a row.

    • by Spatial (1235392)
      No, it's so you don't have to fear. Knowledge permits reaction.
  • Seriously? WTF? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by zappepcs (820751) on Monday February 16, 2009 @11:49AM (#26872811) Journal

    "Comets could be the most significant impact hazard to Earth

    Just what are the "other" impact hazards? I'm very curious about this.

    • You need to get out and watch more movies, seriously :)

    • Re:Seriously? WTF? (Score:5, Informative)

      by meringuoid (568297) on Monday February 16, 2009 @11:57AM (#26872939)
      Just what are the "other" impact hazards? I'm very curious about this.

      Asteroids.

      Asteroids orbit nearer the Sun, and many of them have paths that cross Earth's orbit quite frequently. They're a menace all right, but a menace that can be mapped and measured. Comets on the other hand have long, highly elliptical orbits that carry them far from the Sun. Though any given comet won't pass near the Earth anywhere near so often, they exist in colossal numbers, and for all we know one could come barrelling out of the dark to kill us all next month. We could in principle track every rock of dangerous size in the inner solar system. We haven't a prayer of tracking all the comets.

      • Re:Seriously? WTF? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by XxtraLarGe (551297) on Monday February 16, 2009 @12:13PM (#26873133) Journal

        Though any given comet won't pass near the Earth anywhere near so often, they exist in colossal numbers, and for all we know one could come barrelling out of the dark to kill us all next month.

        Sounds like there's not really any reason to worry about it then if there's nothing we can do. Isn't that the definition of FUD?

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by osu-neko (2604)

          Sounds like there's not really any reason to worry about it then if there's nothing we can do.

          If the utterly false statement that "there's nothing we can do" were true, you'd have a point there.

          Isn't that the definition of FUD?

          No. In fact, it's almost entirely unrelated to FUD in the usual sense. FUD usually involves getting you to choose one option over another due to spurious reasons, e.g. choose product A because product B is open-source so the bad guys can insert exploits into the code (they accept contributions from anyone, after all -- this was an argument my old boss made). Trying to move people from a situation where the

        • by rtb61 (674572)

          Simple comet defence, in fact I already pointed it out once as a simple satellite defence system. Simply create massive mirror arrays, say about a 1.5m by 1.5m mirror hooked up with electronics so you can accurately gauge the position of a mirror and encrypted wireless electronics to control mirror facing. Your looking at some where between $250 and $500 per mirror. Now the mirrors do even need to be in one location but can be distributed through out the country and we are not talking 2,000 or 5,000 thousa

          • by cowscows (103644)

            Design a cool screensaver that the monitor will display while my computer is running this, and I'll sign up.

        • by StikyPad (445176)

          So we've got the options of panic and willful ignorance out there.. how about a third option like developing technology to improve detection or damage mitigation.

          Nah.. that's just crazy talk.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by mrsquid0 (1335303)

      >>"Comets could be the most significant impact hazard to Earth
      >Just what are the "other" impact hazards? I'm very curious about
      >this.

      Asteroids are the other impact threat. There is also a small risk from man-made space junk. The biggest threat is comets because they tend to be moving far faster than asteroids typically do (near parabolic orbits vs low-eccentricity elliptical orbits), so the kinetic energy in a comet impact can be much higher than in an asteroid impact. Another problem with co

      • by Schemat1c (464768)

        ...so it can be very hard to detect them before the impact shockwave turns us to jelly.

        Mmm... jelly.

    • Satellites and nuclear submarines?
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 16, 2009 @12:22PM (#26873273)

      sperm wales and pertunias...

    • by Gilmoure (18428)

      Cars are a pretty dangerous impact hazard on Earth.

    • Just what are the "other" impact hazards?

      Mutalisks.

      • Just what are the "other" impact hazards?

        Mutalisks.

        If Mutalisks were ever going to be a hazard, we'd be killed by a Zergling rush long before the Mutalisks got here.

    • by Caue (909322)
      it's the collision crisis I mentioned in the other article (about the subs) planes, subs, asteroids, lhc's little blackhole stove, satellites... we are doomed. it's only getting worse. but you'll eventually collide to this conclusion
    • Just what are the "other" impact hazards? I'm very curious about this.

      Planet X, of course!

    • Extrasolar objects (Score:2, Interesting)

      by symbolset (646467)

      Somebody else covered asteroids, so I'll touch on another risk: extrasolar objects. You see, a lot of discussion is made of object in our solar system because they are things we have to study for long periods of time; we can see them. However our solar system is orbiting the center of our galaxy in concert with a vast quantity of other material. Things can and do achieve escape velocity from our solar sytem, like the Voyager probes.

      Not all the mass in our galaxy belongs to a star. Some of it - the remn

    • by msormune (808119)
      Well, Galactus and Silver Surfer.
    • Just what are the "other" impact hazards? I'm very curious about this.

      Debris from colliding satellites

  • What else is out there that might be an impact hazard?

    • The Vogons plan to build an interstellar expressway right where Earth is sitting. Of course they'll have to destroy Earth first, safety you know. That's a huge impact!! Of course if humans had listened to the centuries of broadcast warnings everyone would have known about this. But nooo..humans were listening for Radio Alpha Centuri and trying to Nuke each other. Oh well..so long and thanks for all the fish.
    • With massively, massively lower probability than comets or asteroids: small black holes. Black and brown dwarfs. And interstellar planets (which have been posited to exist).

      Given that we don't know what (most) dark matter is, maybe there are other possible surprises. But dark matter seems to be very unclumpy.

    • by Locke2005 (849178)
      What else is out there that might be an impact hazard?
      Russian satellites? Asteroids? Anything out there other than a comet that has mass?
  • DCC Trading (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 16, 2009 @11:59AM (#26872951)

    My greatest fear is that people will view this as something that they have no control over, thus inducing a sense of complacency. Complacency kills!

    But there is hope. I propose a Dark Comet Credit (DCC) trading system, whereby planets that are in danger of being struck by dark comets purchase dark comet credits from planets that aren't in danger.

    It may not be a perfect plan, but it's better than doing nothing.

  • With the rate that things are colliding recently, any comet will be taken out by an asteroid, satellite or stray sub way before it gets near a population centre

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      any comet will be taken out by an asteroid, satellite or stray sub way before it gets near a population centre

      Fair enough, but:

      1) How are we going to get those Subway restaurants to stray?

      2) What will happen to all those $5 foot longs after the impact?!?

  • by jollyreaper (513215) on Monday February 16, 2009 @12:02PM (#26873011)

    Just because these comets hang out in the furthest, coldest reaches of the solar system, don't reflect light all that well and listen to cradle of filth, that doesn't make them all dark! Goth, maybe, but not dark. You just don't understand them.

  • if we discover a dark comet too late for the standard "shoot a nuke" at it solution to work, I propose we build a warp field around it and jump it THROUGH the planet... this idea is 100% original.

    • by sdpuppy (898535)
      Hey BigHungryJoe, why don't you patent that idea?

      That way next time the Earth is threatened by a dark comet coming to obliterate us, in order to use that idea everyone would have to pay you royalties and you'll clean up! Why this idea is even better than One Click(TM)©!!!!

  • by Nomaxxx (1136289) on Monday February 16, 2009 @12:29PM (#26873359) Homepage
    Hurry up! Find Bruce Willis!!!
  • Oblig.... (Score:4, Funny)

    by SIR_Taco (467460) on Monday February 16, 2009 @12:36PM (#26873449) Homepage

    Shouldn't we put brown paper bags over our head or something?
    If you like.
    Will it help?
    No.

  • I knew it all along.

    All the quarters spent in the arcade was really an investment in a space fighter pilot training program. Humanity will thank me when I show off my real comet busting mojo!

  • The perpetual worry-warts in the UK then shift to worrying about invisible asteroids instead of global warming.
    • by Duradin (1261418)

      Well, invisible asteroids could have an actual impact on the planet.

      Saving the planet from global warming is rather silly. The planet will be fine. It's survived not having an atmosphere before and I bet it can do it again.

      Global warming could change human life as we know it. Primitive humans made through an ice age (good thing they didn't have carbon and fuel taxes back then). I would expect modern man to be able to ride out the heat. Either way, the planet won't care.

    • by DanJ_UK (980165) *
      This is what happens when British people get locked in one room for too long.
  • I can see 2 blatant problems with this right off the bat: 1) It is totally unenforceable (unless you monitor 100% of internet traffic in the state, and 2) It will force any internet retailers left in New York to relocate to another state. The cost of doing business in NY is already so high that it is driving companies out. Making up for the shortfall by taxing the remaining companies even more is a pretty short-sighted move.
  • My much longer summary didn't get used, so I'll pass out some relevant links.

    NASA Near Earth Object program: http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/index.html [nasa.gov]

    Impact risks are within. Pertinent to this article are the size estimates which are based on albedo (visual reflectivity) and so the mass and impact damage estimates.

    The UK research team calculated that there should be 300 to 3000 dark comet bodies in system. We know of about 25, so there may be up to 100 times more. Current known Near Earth Asteroids total around 60

    • Consider a spongey body made of soft, runny (with chunks), powdery carbonaceous materials (including hydrocarbons) [...]

      What?! There may be hydrocarbons on these things?!?

      Well, why didn't you say so? We'll invade tomorrow.

  • by hwyhobo (1420503) on Monday February 16, 2009 @03:03PM (#26875413)
    Of all the ways to go, at least here is one where you don't have to say, "Well, that was a bonehead thing to do..."
  • If it weren't for this massive impact some 65k years ago we would still be voting for lizards
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Dragonslicer (991472)

      If it weren't for this massive impact some 65k years ago we would still be voting for lizards

      I know we Americans don't pay much attention to the SI system, but you might want to check your prefixes.

  • Yeah that's it, let's introduce more fear, so we can all buy stress relief pills, and go to our leaders for protection, regardless how lousy those leaders are.
  • Quick sign up for your place on Ark Ship B.
  • It's the Comet Empire! [comet-empire.com] Where the Argo when we need her?

If you hype something and it succeeds, you're a genius -- it wasn't a hype. If you hype it and it fails, then it was just a hype. -- Neil Bogart

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