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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Playing Dodgeball in Space

Comet Elenin fading. Credit: Michael Mattiazzo

By Mark Daymont
Space Center Educator and Flight Director

While we wait for the eventual demise of German satellite ROSSAT between the 20th and the 23rd, Earth managed to avoid destruction from the "Doomsday Comet." According to some conspiracy theorists, Comet Elenin was expected to hit the Earth on Sunday the 16th. Well, it must not have been too many conspiracy theorists, because not even I had heard of this one.

Apparently, some of the conspirators believed that the name of the comet, Elenin, was code for ELE, or Extinction Level Event. This ties into something called the Nibiru or Planet X collision. Believers fear that a large planetary body or comet not currently known by astronomers (but known to the ancient astronomers) will come barreling out of the dark and collide with the Earth, or make a near miss, enough to cause tremendous geological damage and threaten the human species.

In actuality, Comet Elenin was discovered in December 2010 by Russian amateur Leonid Elenin. Already very faint, it was estimated to be a long-period comet of only a diameter of about 3-4 kilometers. After a large solar storm in August, the comet was seen to be breaking up and growing much fainter. As it swept around the Sun on September, the break up was figured to be complete and only a cloud of cometary debris was noted. See the top photo for a reduction in brightness.

So, on last Sunday, the remaining debris swept pass the Earth. Only it wasn't even close. It passed by at about the same distance as from Earth to Venus. Here in the SpaceRubble Bunker we didn't even notice.

And yet, I should make note that on my drive home from SLC Saturday night, I witnessed a small fireball meteor descending westward apparently over the Oquirr mountains. Curious timing, that...
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