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Coast to Coast AM topics

February 26, 2004

Welcome to Bad Astronomy!

This page has images and links that George Noory and I discussed on the Coast to Coast AM radio show on Thursday night, February 26, 2004. I want to include a disclaimer before you read this page though: the discussion and conclusions below are mine alone. I sometimes make mistakes, and I am comfortable admitting them when I do. If anything on this page is wrong please let me know. I am summarizing claims of other people, and this can be a dangerous task, because it can lead to misinterpretations of what they are saying. I want to be as fair as I can to their claims.

Also, I haven't had much time to write and edit this page. I may trim it eventually to make it leaner and easier to read. Forgive me if it rambles a bit!


  • The Asteroid Impact That Wasn't
  • This Summer's Two Comets
  • Conclusion

  • The Asteroid Impact That Wasn't

    In January of this year, astronomers discovered a new asteroid. Contrary to what some people have said, we were never in danger of being hit by it, no knowledge was covered up, and astronomers were not ready to call the President about it. While there is a story here, it's (as usual) not what the doomsayers are saying.

    Briefly, four images were taken by the LINEAR telescope, designed to look for asteroids. An asteroid was seen in the images, so the data were sent to the Minor Planet Center (MPC) in Boston, which is a clearing-house of such things. They took the data, calculated a preliminary orbit for the rock, and posted it. Mind you, the initial positions calculated were fairly uncertain. This means the orbit calculated wasn't very accurate, so predicting where the asteroid would be in the future with any certainty was pretty much impossible.

    An astronomer read the orbital prediction and posted it to a mailing list for people who observe asteroids and compute their orbits. Another astronomer realized the orbit calculated meant that there was a chance the rock would hit the Earth. However, no one knew for sure because there was too much uncertainty in the orbit. Follow-up observations made within a day or so showed clearly that there was no chance of an impact, and we were safe. Since things happened so quickly, the news never really had a chance to get to the press. Before it could, it was shown that there was never a threat. After that, it blew over.

    Not that this has stopped, David Booth, a recent guest on "Coast to Coast AM", who feels (without any supporting evidence) that there was a coverup by astronomers. On his website, he says (note: this page has been replaced, and I cannot find the old page quoted below; if someone can give me a link, I'd appreciate it):

    Now this all occurred on January 13, 2004 and prior to yesterday neither the scientist involved or the government released any information about this incident to the public. Lesson? Neither the government nor the scientists involved will warn the public about incoming objects that will strike earth.

    This is simply baloney. He has zero evidence of this. In fact, a Yahoo!Groups mailing list was discussing this object during the entire process. The orbital solution was available to anyone who subscribes to the MPC service. An impact solution was not a high probability due to the uncertainties in the measurements, and were eliminated within hours with new observations.

    In fact, part of this fooforaw is that some astronomers were talking about what to do in case this asteroid were predicted to hit. Should they call the President? How do you do that? How do you release this information to the public? The fact of the matter is that saying that all the astronomers were trying to cover up the asteroid is exactly the opposite of what happened. Since this asteroid was quickly shown not to be a threat, nothing ever came of it.

    He then goes on to say:

    But the most important aspect to this disinformation story for us to remember is the message we're being told, which is, Do not depend on scientists to save you, don't blame the government because the scientists didn't tell us about it and, finally, you as average Joe's are on your own, Good Luck!"

    The disinformation is his, not the astronomers'. The scientists in this case had nothing to save, since there was never any danger. And as I said above, astronomers were in fact discussing what to do if this proved to be a dangerous asteroid. The astronomer who did the followup observation showing the asteroid was no danger was an amateur, not a professional. Many professional observatories had bad weather, and couldn't follow-up. In this case, amateurs can respond very quickly, and one did. He made the observations, reported them (to the professionals!) and the orbit updated. So despite what Booth is saying and implying, the system worked.

    As if he hasn't said enough incorrect stuff, Booth then says:

    Supercomputer algorithms can calculate and predict paths within seconds for any space object.

    This is completely incorrect. Booth cannot know this to be true, because it isn't. He's making it up. First of all, an orbital calculation can be done using a hand calculator. I know this for a fact, because I did it as a homework assignment as an undergrad (it took me two days, but it can be done!). A desktop PC can do these calculations in seconds; you hardly need a Colossus to do it. But that doesn't matter: this isn't Star Trek; you cannot just walk up to a computer and ask it what the orbit is for any arbitrary object. You need to have good observations of that object, spread out over time. It doesn't matter how good the computer is or how smart the programmer, without good observations telling you the asteroid's precise position and motion, you cannot get a good orbital solution. Period. The initial observations of 2004AS1 were not very good, so the initial orbit calculation was shaky.

    And what about the "call to the president"? This was an exaggeration. At no point was anyone actually about to call the President. Clark Chapman, who is the one some articles say was the man who had his finger on the phone, has himself said he wasn't about to make such a call.

    Asteroid impacts are a real concern, and astronomers are indeed working on identifying the threat. This event is actually showing you that the system is working: an asteroid was spotted, a call was put out for more observations, they were made, and it was seen that there was no threat.

    Links for this story:

    This Summer's Two Comets

    Comets are basically big chunks of rock and ice that orbit the Sun. When they are far from the Sun, they show little or no activity. When they approach the Sun, they warm up, and the ice melts (well, it sublimates, going from a solid directly to a gas). When that happens, the small nucleus of the comet (usually a few kilometers across) gets surrounded by a halo (called a coma) of gas which can be thousands of kilometers across, as big as a planet.

    Lots of comets are known. Many new ones are discovered every year. Which brings us to two new ones, called C/2001 Q4 and C2002/T7. These are fairly run-of-the-mill comets, as they go, but they both have a special trait: they will both get close enough to the Earth to be bright enough to see with your unaided eye. Moreover, they will both be visible at the same time!

    This is actually fairly unusual. We get a "naked-eye comet" every few years (remember Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp?) but not usually two at the same time. They will be best seen from the southern hemisphere. but also should be visible from a dark site in the northern hemisphere in May. These comets won't get as bright as Hale-Bopp did, but they should still be pretty cool to see through binoculars.

    Of course, some people have to make more of this than there is. One of these people is James McCanney, who was on "Coast to Coast AM" just a few nights ago as I write this. As usual, he said lots of things that were really, really wrong (just as he did the last time he was on C2C; that link debunks a lot of his nonsense that he said the other day as well).

    For one thing, he said both comets were coming out of the South. C/2002 T7 is actually visible from the northern hemisphere right now, and is "south" only by definition. According to orbital maps, it has in fact been in the northern skies for months, and only dips a bit south before coming up again (this motion is only apparent, caused by the combination of the Earth's movement with the comet's). McCanney has been saying that there will be disaster coming from the south for years, and these comets must have seem like they were (har har) heaven sent for him. But he's still wrong.

    McCanney went on to say that a lot of astronomers are going to Antarctica for mysterious reasons (repeating what David Booth said the other night). Booth claimed 1000 astronomers have gone down there! McCanney echoed this. Well, this is ludicrous. First, there is no reason to send astronomers to an observatory like that. It's far easier to send the data from the telescope to the astronomers. That's how most modern telescopes work (like Hubble, where it's kinda hard to get to the telescope). Second, if 1000 astronomers had gone to the South Pole, I think I would have heard of it. There aren't all that many astronomers in the world, so having that many disappear for a while would have raised some flags. Of course McCanney said that only the most "important" astronomers went, and second tier astronomers like me would be left in the dark. That's silly too. It's like saying there's an elephant in your refrigerator, and you didn't see it when you were looking for the milk carton. There is no evidence for such a claim, and actual evidence against it.

    Along the same lines, Booth claimed that a large object would be impacting the South Pole, claiming it was smaller than the Earth but bigger than the Moon. That, again, is just silly. The Moon is a very large object as these things go. Anything that big tooling around the solar system would have been easy to spot years ago. You can't suppress a sighting of it either; Jupiter has moons about the same size as ours, and if Jupiter itself weren't so bright, the moons would be visible to the naked eye, even from 800 million kilometers away! So here again we have another vacuous claim with no evidence to support it, and actual real evidence against it.

    Some people have claimed that NASA is only just announcing these comets. That claim is false too. The names of the comets bely that: they were discovered in 2001 and 2002, so they have been known and observed by amateur astronomers for years.

    Links for this story:


    I have said this before, but it bears repeating: the Universe is a marvelous place, filled with wonder, beauty, and objects that bend the mind almost to breaking. But as far as we can observe, the universe obeys a set of rules, which we call physics and mathematics. We have a pretty good grasp on the basics of these rules (which is why, for example, you can use the computer in front of you right now; it takes a lot of physics and math to make a computer). We do not understand all these rules, of course, but that does not mean we understand none of them. There are people out there (like McCanney and Booth) who want you to think that we need to overturn the very underpinnings of physics and science, but this is simply not true.

    The Universe is wonderful enough without having to make up nonsense about it.

    ©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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