Thursday, April 27, 2006

Hype and reality about the splintering comet

A few weeks ago I mentioned how Comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 was breaking apart as it rounded the sun, creating a "string of pearls" for this comet, parts of which might be visible to the unaided eye in a very dark site in one month. Today I saw this press release from NASA with Hubble Telescope and ground-based telescope pictures of the ongoing breakup of this comet.

Alas, as seems quite common, some people seem wont to blow this out of proportion. A few groups have been stating that the comet is going to smash into the Earth, bringing the end of the world. Let me state unequivocally: Comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 will NOT hit the Earth anytime in the foreseeable future, nor will any large pieces of it. It will be passing more than 5 million miles away, 20 times the distance to the moon.

How do we know this? It is simple physics, the same physics that allows us to send astronauts to the moon, robots to Mars, and predict where the planets will be in the sky. It just is not possible this comet to go careening out of its course and hit the Earth.

So, breathe easy, and late next month, take a trip far from city lights and try to watch this celestial breakup. I'll be sure to keep you posted.

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