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Saturday, April 23, 2011


Comet Elenin: the FAQ for the worried.

Orbit of Comet C/2010 X1 Elenin (red) visualised with Celestia, showing Elenin at closest approach to Earth (click to embiggen)

Breaking News: Comet Elenin appears to be disintegrating. Yep, it's disintegrating. As of October 15 no confirmed sighting of the comet has taken place.

Will the remnants of comet Elenin hit the Earth? No, they will come nowhere near us.

Will it Hit Earth: No, its closest approach is 0.23 AU on Oct 16, 2011, where 1 AU is the distance from the Earth to the Sun. To put this in perspective, this is only a little closer than the closest approach of Venus to Earth, and roughly 100 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon. This distance is from the latest MPEC ephemeris which is based on over 100 observations from multiple observatories that have been continuously tracking the comet, so it won't change appreciably.

But its Earth MOID is only 0.03 AU! MOID stands for Minimal Orbital Interaction Distance. It is how close the orbits are together, not how close the objects are themselves. It's important for objects that have multiple return orbits, like potential asteroid impactors, but not for a one-off visitor like Elenin (well, you could wait for another 10,000 years or so). Earth and Elenin themselves never get closer than 100 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

Surely if Elenin Was Going to Hit the Earth NASA/the Government Would Hush it Up? Which government? The Australian Government, the UK Government? The Italian Government? The South African Government? Amateur astronomers world wide are following this comet and continually talking to each other. The have the programs to work out where the comet is going. If the comet was coming anywhere near us, the amateur community would be first to know, and there is no keeping them quite. Consider how wide spread the information is about Apophis, which is a real, if extremely marginal, hazard.

Will it Cause Earthquakes, Abnormally High Tides or Other Disasters: No, Elenin is a mere 3-5 kilometres across and has less than a billionth of the tidal force of the Moon at closest approach (as well as a negligible magnetic field). If the Moon can't cause the poles to tip, cause massive tidal floods or earthquakes, Comet 2010 X1 Elenin won't. We've been closer to other comets before with no ill effect.

But What About Mensur Omerbashich's Paper that Says Elenin is Causing Earthquakes? It shows nothing of the sort, earthquakes are no more common during comet alignments than at any other time (see here for an update, earthquakes still not caused by Elenin).

But it's bigger than Jupiter! No, that's the coma , the thin haze of gas and dust that surrounds the comet nucleus. The nucleus of C/2010 X1 Elenin is roughly 3-4 Km in diameter and Elenin has a coma around 50,000 km wide at the time of writing (which is a third of the diameter of Jupiter). The average density of the coma is about the same as the density of the atmosphere on the Moon. A coma is a feature of all comets that approach the Sun closely, for example comet 81P Wild (nucleus 4 Km diameter) had a coma of 50,000 Km and 103P Hartley had a coma of 150,000 Km. The Great Comet of 1811 had a nucleus of around 30km in diameter and had a coma nearly as big as the Sun. Comet Halley is 6x15 km and had a coma 100,000 km wide when it last approached Earth. We survived them all (and 103P Hartley came nearly twice as close as Elenin will), and we will survive Elenin without incident.

The size of Elenin has been independently confirmed (well, it's probably smaller), by observation of the orbit of the small asteroid 1999 RQ176 when it had a close encounter with Elenin.

But I Can See a Picture of it in WikiSky, it's HUGE! That is the carbon star CW Leonis.

Didn't it Just Cause Saturn's Tilt to Change? No, the author of that article didn't realize that telescopes invert the image.

Is Elenin a Moon of a Brown Dwarf Star? No.

But Brown Dwarf Stars are so Cold, you Can't See Them. No, coldest detected so far is ~370K (about the temperature of a hot cup of tea), the the warmest are around 2200 K, and most range between 500-1000 K. They may not produce much visible light, but they reflect light. Jupiter has a composition similar to those of Drown Dwarf stars. Jupiter's cloud tops are a chilly 128 K and it reflects light just fine. Any Brown Dwarf in the inner solar system would be painfully obvious.

Will Going Through the Comets Tail Affect Us? No, should the rather small tail of Elenin actually pass over us, it's doing a pretty good imitation of a vacuum (about 100 atoms per cm3). We have been through bigger and denser comet tails before with no effect whatsoever (especially the Great Comet of 1861).

Why isn't Comet Elenin in the News? For the same reason that the other 16 comets discovered in 2010 didn't get in the news, or the 5 comets discovered in 2011. They are all dim. The News is only interested in comets that are spectacular, readily visible to the unaided eye or are being visited by spacecraft. Comet 2009 P1 will be as bright, if not brighter than C/2010 X1 Elenin, but that's not in the news either. Amateur and professional astronomers are watching comet Elenin and others avidly, but the news channels don't care about our obsessions with faint fuzzies.

Why Can't I Find Information of Elenin at the NASA Website? Because NASA is not the arbiter of all things astronomical. You won't find information on C/2009 P1, C/2011 C1 or any of the faint comets discovered during 2010 and 2011. NASA does have information of comets that its spacecraft have visited, or are interesting in some other way, but it's not an exhaustive comet site like Cometography or Aerith.

I Saw Comet Elenin Near the Sun in August 2010/Now: In August 2010 only really powerful telescopes could see Elenin. You saw Venus. If you are seeing something bright near the Sun in the morning sky now, it's Venus.

How Can I Tell What IS in the Sky and Avoid The Venus Confusion? For freeware standalone programs there is Cartes du Ciel and Stellarium (my favourite). For Web based solutions Skyview Cafe, Sky-Map and GoogleEarth (KMZ file here) all work.

Where Can I Find Orbital Elements for Celestia or Stellarium? Here.

Where Can I Find Images of Elenin? Here, and here and a nice image of C/2010 X1 near to NGC 3376 is here.

I have Photographed/ Seen a Photograph of a Double Sun, is this Elenin? It's lens flare.

Is this Video from Auckland Elenin? No, it's just a jet contrail.

Other Good Links:

Leonid Elenin calculates what would happen to planets if a Brown Dwarf was in the inner solar system.

The Sceptics on Elenin.

Astronotes, 10 facts you need to know about Elenin.

Astronomy Beat on Elenin (PDF)

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Another fine Elenin FAQ was just published by the CSI (not the one from TV, the U.S. skeptics).
But doesn't passing through or near a comet's tail reanimate the dead and instill in them a strong desire to consume human brains?

Saw it on YouTube...

Why is NASA hiding this from us?!?!
The latest "planet discovered" is Messier 8 (Lagoon Nebula):

The "object" appears centered on STEREO-B HI1 on 2011-Apr-11 and 2010-Mar-17.

Wikisky shows the object to be M8 (Lagoon Nebula).

What you are seeing is wide angle view with the Milky Way galaxy in the background. If this object was part of the solar system it would move relative to the other background objects. I do not see it moving relative to the background. :)
-- Kevin Heider
Kevin wrote:"The latest "planet discovered" is Messier 8 (Lagoon Nebula):"

Oh my, I have to blog that (comet c/2011 C1 is in that frame, but really hard to see).
You do know that when we pass through the comet's tail we will

A. All go blind and animated plants will land and kill us all

B. We will all suffocate like we did in 1910

C. We will (some of us, at any rate) be taken up to the alien space ship

D. All become zombies, Like Rob said

E. Empires will fall and the AntiChrist will arrive.

All these things are scientifically proven.
As mentioned, this comet is much bigger then what people are saying it is. How do you explain the gravitational pull everytime we are in alignment with it and our sun, considering the last alignment, in March was about the distance of Jupiter to us. This object pulled hard enough on us to cause a massive Earthquake in Japan, and if you were paying attention, was predicted days beforehand. Wake up people.
Ummm, so nice try in deescalating the talk and truths about Elnin. I think this article is a bunch of crap! It's beyond obvious and the Thunderdome that Elenin has had a drastic impact to our earth. People please don't be fooled, just because a guy is taking pictres with a molecular structure and is losing hair doesn't make what he is saying factual. Wait and see Elenin will continue impact in the coming months. How soon we forget what's gone on so far this year! God Bless!
SIGH The point is to actually read the articles linked to in the FAQ, eg http://astroblogger.blogspot.com/2011/03/from-super-moons-to-comet-elenin-we.html
Thanks for your very informative blog post.

Tried out your orbital elements examples with Celestia and Stellarium and unfortunately they display the comet in different locations ie. about 2 days apart.

So I'm trying to input the most up to date orbital elements into Celestia and Stellarium. However not having much luck with Celestia.

Is there any enthusiast sites that you know of that have current Elenin orbital elements ready for Celestia?
Sorry Andy, the latest elements for Elenin break Celestia, you are stuck for a while until more recent elements bypass whatever mathematical bug that breaks the Celestia orbital dynamics calculation.
This year two near earth objects passed by earth with only a few days warning. One the size of a school bus, the other the size of a 10 story building. This Ian guy didn't see those coming, so for him to speak of Elenin with such cofidence is arrogance at it's highest. You claim it is a small comet? Where is NASA with it's official size estimates?
Anonymous said...Where is NASA with it's official size estimates? as noted in the FAQ, NASA isn't responsible for this. It's the astronomical community, and they have determined its around 3-4 km in size.

You can work this out for yourself.

We can work it out roughly ourselves from what we know about planets and asteroids. We know that how bright a planet/asteroid/comet is is proportion to how far away they are from us and how dark/reflective they are.

At the moment, Elenin and Mars are at roughly the same distance from Earth. Elenin is about magnitude 14, and Mars is magnitude 1.4. Mars is 6792 Km in diameter, so Elenin must be much smaller than Mars.

The Asteroid Vesta is 530 Km in diameter and currently a bit further from us than the orbit of Mars, it is currently magnitude 6.3, roughly 10 times dimmer than Mars,and it is 532 Km in diameter roughly 10 times smaller (actually 13 times).

Again, Elenin is magnitude 14, over 15 times dimer again so it must be much smaller than Vesta. Scaling against the Mars to Vesta ratio, this means Elenin is roughly 20 Km in diameter by our back of the envelope calculations.

This is an over estimate, as Vesta placed at Mars's orbit will be a bit brighter than the figure we used here (and hence the calculated diameter of Elenin will be smaller).

Elenin has been measured to be between 3-4 Km in diameter (best estimate given the size of the telescopes and distance involved), so order of magnitude agreement with our quick and dirty estimate (the real relation between diameter, brightness and magnitude) is slightly more complex.
Oh, and people might like to see this Elenin fails to perturb a small asteroid at 0.002 AUs distance
"I Saw Comet Elenin Near the Sun in August 2010/Now: In August 2010 only really powerful telescopes could see Elenin." - this is from you published in Universe today.
However, reports have it that Elenin was discovered in Dec 2010. Please explain
dotcom48 said... However, reports have it that Elenin was discovered in Dec 2010. Please explain

It was magnitude 21 in August 2010, the magnitude of 21 for August 2010 is calculated form knowing the orbit of Elenin.

Only the most powerful telescopes could have seen it at mag 21. They didn't, but the point is that Elenin was so incredibly dim there is no way you could have seen it near the sun.

By December 2010 when Elenin was discovered, it had brightened to magnitude 19, you still need quite powerful scopes to see it, but it was now within the upper range of high powered amateur instruments.
A lot of the people spreading this Elenin doom stuff say that, "if the coma is so big (200,000km), why can't we see it with the naked eye?"

I assume there's a logical reason for this, I can't find the answer anywhere though. Too small? Too far away? :S
If the coma was the brightness of Jupiter, at the current distance of the comet it would be (just) visible as a tiny disk.

But the coma is not very bright, and the inner coma is around magnitude 9 at the moment, so there is no way you could see it with the unaided eye.
It's not elenin people should be worried about. These facts are bs. saturn did in fact get tilted 90 degrees but not by elenin. It was Niburu. The electromagnetic field of that thing is massive. Niburu is strangely on the same orbital path as elenin and if it gets close enough to get magnetic dominance over us expect serious earth changes. But Niburu is about a year behind elenin so don't worry about it for a while.
Saturn did not tilt, it was just someone not realising that telescopes invert images.
HI, PLEASE go to google.com/sky type in MERCURY and hit the INFARRED tab. see it for your self it can only be seen in INfARRED!!!
Thans Lauren Kurth AUSTRALIA
It's the carbon star RW leonis, not Elenin (or Nibiru, or a Brown Dwarf)
Great FAQ Ian, informative and clear. I like it.
The following I got from a friend, who most likely got it from one of those doomsday sites :
Comet Elenin is a nice target and everybody is focused on Elenin and perhaps the last reported projected encounter towards earth .0004AU is correct, but the real danger might well come from ASTEROID 2005 YU55 (combined with the debris tail of Comet Elenin) on November 8 to November 9, 2011 at .0022 AU

So now they try to combine the alleged dangers of either one of them. It's starting to get seriously silly.

@ John S. Wilkins : Mate I so hope you were being sarcastic.
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