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Earth Space Science

Comet May Have Missed Earth By a Few hundred Kilometers 265

Posted by samzenpus
from the old-news dept.
First time accepted submitter afree87 writes "A re-analysis of historical observations at a Mexican observatory suggests Earth narrowly avoided an extinction event just over a hundred years ago. On August 12th and 13th 1883, an astronomer at a small observatory in Zacatecas in Mexico made an extraordinary observation, some 450 objects, each surrounded by a kind of mist, passing across the face of the Sun. This month, Hector Manterola at the National Autonomous University of Mexico suggests these were fragments of a comet. 'If they had collided with Earth we would have had 3275 Tunguska events in two days, probably an extinction event.'"
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Comet May Have Missed Earth By a Few hundred Kilometers

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  • by Hartree (191324) on Monday October 17, 2011 @10:11AM (#37738622)

    3275 of em. That's a heck of a shotgun blast.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 17, 2011 @10:12AM (#37738632)

    May have missed ? I'm fairly certain it definitely missed.

  • by SpelledBackwards (587772) on Monday October 17, 2011 @10:13AM (#37738648)
    And likely just a *little* too early to blame Nikola Tesla... if we would have had any conspiracy theorists left.
    • This is Niola "Bleeping" Tesla we are talking about. Of course he is responsible. After doing some mathematical calculations he realized that something destroyed and threw these off course a hundred years ago. So he used his experimental time machine to go back and do it himself to be certain it was done.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 17, 2011 @10:18AM (#37738712)

    How Slashdotters approach all scientific articles:

    1. Abounding skepticism.
    2. Criticism of scientist's findings and methods used.
    3. Explanation of failed logic.
    4. Loss of all wonder and awe and appreciation at whatever findings remain.
    5 Cynicism and dejection at failure of science.
    6. Continued existence of misery and woe and greater skepticism.

    My tongue is jammed up against my cheek; otherwise, I'd say more. God bless.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Pharmboy (216950)

      How Slashdotters approach all scientific articles:

      1. Abounding skepticism.

      Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Being extraordinarily skeptical isn't a bad thing, and is part of the scientific method. It IS a good thing.

      Extraordinary claims without skepticism isn't science, it is religion.

      • by Nemyst (1383049) on Monday October 17, 2011 @11:17AM (#37739474) Homepage

        Most Slashdot reactions are not skepticism, they are knee-jerk reactions over information that challenges their vision of things. Actual skepticism would involve attempting to verify claims as opposed to dismissing them outright.

      • by genner (694963)

        How Slashdotters approach all scientific articles:

        1. Abounding skepticism.

        Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Being extraordinarily skeptical isn't a bad thing, and is part of the scientific method. It IS a good thing.

        Extraordinary claims without skepticism isn't science, it is religion.

        Which is all well and good as soon as everyone can agree on what is and is not extraordinary.

      • by MrHanky (141717)

        Actual scepticism is a rare thing on Slashdot. Most of the time, it's just some regurgitated nonsense from someone who didn't even read the article, never mind understood it. Also, your claim "Extraordinary claims without skepticism isn't science, it is religion" is both wrong and moronic.

      • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

        Actually, extraordinary claims require the same proof as any other type of claim. The reason I know that is because the scientific method says: 1. Characterize. 2. Hypothesize. 3. Predict. 4. Experiment. If extraordinary claims required extraordinary proof, then it would say: 1. Characterize. 2. Hypothesize. 3. Predict. 4. Experiment. 5. Reject experiment if claim is extraordinary. Or, to put it another way, would it be acceptable if Pope Benedict

        • by osu-neko (2604)

          Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

          Actually, extraordinary claims require the same proof as any other type of claim. The reason I know that is because the scientific method says...

          It's irrelevant what the scientific method says. You're really reading something into the quote that isn't there. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof" isn't a description of proper scientific methodology, it's a commentary on human psychology, and you're badly misreading it if the question occurs, "who determines what's an 'extraordinary' claim", since it's subjective -- it's just a matter of what each individual who hears the claim personally considers extraordinary or not. If you don't fi

    • What about the comments where I link to the original paper [couk.com] and its machine translation?

      "STEP ON THE SOLAR DISK OF A SWARM OF OBSERVED corpuscle
      Observatory in Zacatecas (MEXICO). "

      "By Jose Tree and Bonilla (Director of the Observatory of Zacatecas, Mexico).

      "I have the habit at the observatory in Zacatecas, located at two thousand 502
      meters above sea level, daily observation of the surface state
      solar drawing, via direct and projection, stains and grains, as
      also the protuberances of the solar chromosp

    • by vlm (69642)

      7. "I saw that in Nature or arvix or Science six days ago WTF"
      8. "slashdot dupe see yesterday"
      9. "Can anyone figure out what the journalist means, or unfilter the journalist stuff to figure out what the subject meant?"
      10. "The journalist claims this is new, here is a wikipedia article about the same having been done five times over the past thirty years"
      11. Can a work a goatse joke into this somehow? or 1. 2. 3. 4. profit? or In soviet russia, the skepticism abounds you

    • by jjohnson (62583)

      c.f. Any /. thread on Hans Reiser, especially after he led that police to Nina's body.

  • by actionbastard (1206160) on Monday October 17, 2011 @10:26AM (#37738814)
    As a scientist, don't author your paper [arxiv.org] with the font set to Comic Sans.
    • by arielCo (995647)
      At least not if you want others to even read it. My eyes hurt.
    • by martas (1439879)
      How did we let something like this happen? Makes me wish those comets had been on target...
    • by Chapter80 (926879)

      As a scientist, don't author your paper [arxiv.org] with the font set to Comic Sans.

      But doesn't the term "Comic Sans" roughly mean "Without Humor" or "Not Funny" ?

      Sounds perfect for a technical paper.

    • Why not? It's the content and structure that counts, or are you so concerned with image that the font is really a pivotal factor in transferring information? Yes I am a scientist and if the damn journal would let me I would use Comic Sans to try and add something interesting moisture to a horribly dry medium. I'd also love to use emoticons for surprising results 0.o
  • Extinction level? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Intrepid imaginaut (1970940) on Monday October 17, 2011 @10:28AM (#37738840)

    It would probably have been calamitous but extinction level, maybe not. I mean most of those would probably have landed in the ocean anyway, with maybe a thousand or so dropping on land. The Tunguska event didn't raise too much atmospheric dust or cause much occlusion, and at around 10 megatons might have released in total ten gigatons or so, which is what, twice the total world nuclear arsenal except without fallout.

    Apocalypse territory? Certainly. Extinction? Probably not.

    • Re:Extinction level? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by dachshund (300733) on Monday October 17, 2011 @11:16AM (#37739458)

      It would probably have been calamitous but extinction level, maybe not. I mean most of those would probably have landed in the ocean anyway, with maybe a thousand or so dropping on land.

      My understanding is that a major asteroid strike on the ocean could be catastrophic due to ozone depletion.* It's just a theory (because obviously we haven't tested it), but if true it would indicate that asteroid strikes are a bad thing no matter where they hit.

      http://www.physorg.com/news/2010-10-asteroid-ocean-deplete-ozone-layer.html [physorg.com]

      * This depends on a single very large asteroid, so a bunch of smaller ones might not be as much of an issue. Unless they're fast moving.

    • by rmdyer (267137)

      Intrepid imaginaut says "...except without fallout."

      No, certainly no fallout from all the nuclear sites around the world being smashed and broken into little bits. Certainly not.

      • by Erich (151)
        Smashing all the nuclear sites around the world in the 1880s would not be very disastrous.
      • by Jeng (926980)

        Nuclear bombs are designed not to go off except for under very special circumstances.

        You are more likely to receive fallout from the nuclear reactors being destroyed, not the bombs.

      • All the nuclear sites around the world that existed in 1883? Yeah, lots of fallout from those...

    • The Tunguska event didn't raise too much atmospheric dust or cause much occlusion

      And while one needle prick won't kill you, three thousand of them will quite likely be problematical.

      might have released in total ten gigatons or so, which is what, twice the total world nuclear arsenal except without fallout.

      Look up "nuclear winter". While the more spectacular and lurid claims of the original proponents have been debunked, it's currently believed that a large scale nuclear war will cause significant c

  • by JoshuaZ (1134087) on Monday October 17, 2011 @10:36AM (#37738940) Homepage

    While we know that in practice actual asteroid and comet strikes on Earth are very rare, this sort of thing helps illustrate how we need to do a good job tracking the larger threats and preparing to deflect them if necessary. The good news is that the WISE mission http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wide-field_Infrared_Survey_Explorer [wikipedia.org] has successfully tracked most of the large asteroids that have near-Earth orbits and none of them are threats in the immediate future. There are however other dangers. For example, comets that are no longer outgassing could potentially have very elliptical orbits that would not be detected by WISE. Also, there may be smaller asteroids that WISE has not detected that could make a life pretty unpleasant in a more narrow area even if they don't lead to an extinction event. An asteroid that was around a thousand feet across (300 meters) could devastate a city and could easily escape detection from WISE. Moreover, there are some real worst case scenarios. If such an asteroid landed in either Pakistan or India for example they might think that the other had launched a nuclear weapon at them.

    In general, we aren't doing enough to deal with potential existential risks. At this point, we don't know if the Great Filter is in front or behind us. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Filter [wikipedia.org]. The basic idea of the Great Filter is that the easiest explanation of the Fermi Paradox is that there's some set of events that make life unlikely to reach the interstellar level. That could be behind us, if for example life arising is unlikely or multicellular life arising is unlikely. But at least some filtration has to be in front of us. It seems that natural events (like asteroid strikes) are not common enough to be the entire filter. But there are other potential filtration events. Learning more about these issues not only helps preserve humanity it also helps get insight into why we seem to be alone. Unfortunately, funding for these sorts of things is tiny. The WISE mission for example was only $320 million and was used not just for the asteroid work but a lot of other good astronomy for objects both inside our solar system and more distant objects. This is a tiny cost compared to what is spent on non-science issues, and is particularly tiny when one considers it as being paid for almost exclusively by a single country.

    • by vlm (69642)

      At this point, we don't know if the Great Filter is in front or behind us

      I thought the "great filter" was a lot of handwaving to explain away rather unique features required for an "advanced" civilization that can't be remotely detected:

      1) Magnetosphere to keep water vapor in the long term and reduce cosmic rays in the short term.

      2) Continental arrangement that gives enough ice age action to encourage evolution competition but not completely wipe out lifeforms and once civilization gets rolling to keep temps and sea levels constant for an unusually long geologic time

      3) A nice si

      • by JoshuaZ (1134087)
        All of that is filtration events that are behind us. But there is potential filtration events in front of us. Asteroids and supernovae are natural examples. Similarly, there are possible events that could occur due to humans. Nuclear war is one example. It may well be that civilizations manage to eliminate themselves before they get advanced enough to spread around. There may be even nastier technologies that we haven't discovered yet. If there are any major filtration events that lie ahead of us, then the
        • One particularly concerning issue is that filtration events in the future don't need to be events that lead to full-out extinction. We've used most of the easily accessible oil and a fair bit of the easily accessible coal, and those resources were necessary to get to our current tech level. If some event sends our tech level back a few thousand years (or possibly even only a few hundred) it may well be that we won't have the resources necessary to return to a technologically advanced situation.

          I wish I hadn

        • . We've used most of the easily accessible oil and a fair bit of the easily accessible coal, and those resources were necessary to get to our current tech level. If some event sends our tech level back a few thousand years (or possibly even only a few hundred) it may well be that we won't have the resources necessary to return to a technologically advanced situation.

          That might turn out to be a feature, rather than a bug. "A few thousand years" is just another blink in time. The over riding problems for humans (and the rest of the planet) is that there are too damned many of us. If you drop the population by a couple of billion, keep it down (the hard part) and reboot the system you might end up with something that lasts longer than the system that we're screwing around with now.

          If not, then maybe the NEXT few thousand years will do it. Worked for the Moties, right?

    • Actually, even small comet at very high speeds, like .1 fraction of light speed (relative to Earth), will probably destroy life here one day, without possibility to react in any way. We will possibly detect only hours in advance that end is near...
      • by JoshuaZ (1134087)
        Extremely high speed objects are something that we would have a lot of trouble reacting to. But comets come from the outskirts of our solar system. They can't get nearly that high. In general, very large objects don't travel that fast. The galactic rotation speed is much slower than .1c. Moreover, if any such impacts occurred at any time on any of the rocky planets or moons we would have noticed it. If any such object had collided with any of the gas giants in the last few thousand years we'd be able to see
        • Are we planning to produce extremely high speed objects in the future? Think anyone else might be able to produce extremely high speed objects? Think they can aim an extremely high speed object at a distant planet?

        • I, for one, am much more worried about the idiots running the various nuclear armed states on this planet and their assorted apocolyptic politicians than anything the universe is planning on tossing our way.

          Occam's razor and all that.

      • by drerwk (695572)
        If it was traveling at .1 c it is not in Solar orbit. Solar escape velocity is 0.0020599 c (speed of light in vacuum).
    • Deflecting a comet or asteroid or two is a manageable problem, but how do we handle 3000 objects all at the same time?
      • Two words: Chuck Norris.
    • For example, comets that are no longer outgassing could potentially have very elliptical orbits that would not be detected by WISE. Also, there may be smaller asteroids that WISE has not detected that could make a life pretty unpleasant in a more narrow area even if they don't lead to an extinction event.

      And, unhappily enough, TFA was concerned with said celestial body.

      So it's OK to go back to shivering in fear. Besides, US presidential elections are just around the corner (again).

  • While it is not impossible that an extinction level event almost happened, I'd like to see a bit more evidence before panicking.

    If this comet was so close, so much so that no other observatory on earth was able to see it due to "parallax", how come not one of the 450 or so pieces impacted the earth? (There are no reports of Tunguska sized impacts).

    Also, wouldn't it be relatively easy to figure out where this thing was headed and find out where it is now? Unless it was a (very) long period comet or ended u

    • While it is not impossible that an extinction level event almost happened, I'd like to see a bit more evidence before panicking.

      Why would you bother panicking in any case?

      Sure, if it might happen in the next couple years, might be worth some panic. Last year's near miss? Not even worth a "whew, we dodged that bullet!"....

      Note also that it's unlikely that there will EVER be more evidence. This was a sighting from one observatory over 100 years ago. It's moderately unlikely that anyone else noticed it a

    • by vlm (69642)

      In fact, if it exists, shouldn't it be easy to find as it will likely have an orbit that repeatedly intersects earth's orbit?

      Only if its in the same inclination as the earth relative to the sun. Classic orbital mechanics mistake... just because two things are up there (lets say, ISS and HST) doesn't mean they'll ever come really close to each other.

      Gravitational slingshot might mean the orbit has been permanently changed. On a long enough scale, from the perspective of small enough objects, there are no non-chaotic orbits. There are Lagrangian points and there is no reason for long term stability there (even the most stable on

    • by murdocj (543661)

      The other issue I have with the story is that if it's disintegrated comet, it had clearly had plenty of time to spread out, as it was "observed" over 2 days. Is it reasonable that it would have spread out to that length (many thousands of kilometers), but still would have remained narrow enough that parallax could be a factor? Wouldn't it at least a thousand kilometer wide? And if so, wouldn't it be visible against the sun over a much wider latitude range?

    • My question would be... how is it that a massive comet could pass near earth and nobody see it at night? Shouldn't it have been visible at night a day later as it traveled away?

    • by dr2chase (653338)

      Good point. Earth's orbital speed is 100,000 km/h. The moon is only 385km away. Things have got to be just-so for that comet to stay in the same parallax for a whole day if it is closer than the moon.

  • Seems like the fragments would have been close enough to be affected by Earth's gravity possibly pulling them in closer if they made a return trip. I wonder where they are now.

  • Dammit!

    Well, back to the drawing board.

    Shit!

  • Hammerfall!!!

  • These were simply the spaceships coming to pick the Heavens Gate people. It just came about 150 years too early. That is all.
  • The referenced article says the fragments were 50-800 km across. An 800km object 600-8000km from earth would not need a telescope! The original article says 46-795m.

  • Sounds like Weapons of Mass Destruction. Wasn't Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld around in 1883?
  • I'm thinking no (Score:5, Interesting)

    by The Bad Astronomer (563217) <thebadastronomer ... m ['ail' in gap]> on Monday October 17, 2011 @03:48PM (#37743134) Homepage
    I'll be blunt: I'm not buying it. I give details on my blog [discovermagazine.com], but I think there are too many holes in the idea. For one thing, comets aren't that small; passing within a few thousand klicks of one would put us inside the debris field. We'd have seen vast numbers of meteors. For another, no one else saw it? At all? Comets can be visible during broad daylight - I've seen one myself - yet there's not a single other observation of a comet that close from any other person on Earth. So I am very, very, very skeptical.

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