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NASA Unclouds Our Nebulous Mayan Imaginations

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With dozens of doomsday stories circulating in popular culture about the year 2012, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration recently called on a panel of experts to help debunk some of the most widespread apocalyptic myths.

Five NASA scientists and a California science educator took part in a live videoconference on Wednesday, Nov. 28, and fielded questions from the public about the most pervasive doomsday scenarios. Social media users were invited to listen live to the discussion.

Topics ranged from the possibility of an undiscovered planet smashing into the Earth, to the prospect of the planet being sucked toward the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy. The information below is a summary of some of the most common myths NASA hears from the public.

Taking part were: David Morrison, an astrobiologist from NASA's Ames Research Center; Don Yeomans, an asteroid scientist from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Mitzi Adams, a solar/archaeoastronomer from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center; Lika Guhathakurta, heliophysicist from NASA Headquarters; Paul Hertz, an astrophysicist from NASA Headquarters; and Andrew Fraknoi, a science educator from Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif.

NASA has already received more than 5,000 questions about Doomsday 2012 through its "Ask an Astrobiologist" webpage, and it has posted more than 400 responses on the subject.

NIBIRU, OR PLANET X

Myth: The ancient Sumerians discovered a planet on a collision course with the Earth, referred to as Nibiru, which has yet to be discovered by modern astronomers. Nibiru supposedly orbits the sun every 3,600 years, and is set to strike the earth this year on Dec. 21. Similar theories posit that a so-called "Planet X" is destined to slam into the Earth in December, and that NASA has been working to conceal the evidence from the public.

The Facts: The Nibiru story is the product of a 1970s-era fiction writer named Zecharia Sitchin, according to Morrison. In a series of books, Sitchin claimed to have translated Sumerian texts that describe a planet called Nibiru, as well as alien visitations from its inhabitants.

A woman named Nancy Lieder amplified fears about the Nibiru myth within the last two decades, according to Morrison. On her website, "Zetatalk," Lieder claimed she was in contact with aliens, who warned her the Earth was in danger from Planet X, or Nibiru.

Lieder's first prediction for the catastrophe was May 2003, but it failed to materialize. Nibiru theorists then merged the idea of a planetary collision with the existing myth about the Mayan calendar predicting the end of the world in 2012, according to Morrison.

Morrison points out the Nibiru myth is preposterous because if such a planet existed, it would now be visible to astronomers across the globe, who would have been tracking it for more than a decade. Nibiru would also be the brightest object in the sky, visible to everyone on Earth, and its gravity would be interfering with the orbit of our planet.

"This is such a pervasive idea that makes no sense," Morrison said.

Despite how far-fetched the Nibiru myth is, Morrison said it's now the foremost concern among people who contact him on NASA's "Ask an Astrobiologist" webpage.

One fact that complicates matters for Morrison when he tries to dispel the Nibiru myth is a decades-old prediction from NASA scientists that an undocumented planet exists in the outer stretches of our solar system.

NASA floated that idea in 1983, based on new infrared images captured with its Infrared Astronomy Satellite. The satellite was able to document 350,000 infrared sources, many of which had not previously been identified. But subsequent studies with more powerful instruments showed that none of the mystery objects were planets in our own solar system.

DESTRUCTION BY PLANETARY ALIGNMENT

Myth: On Dec. 21, 2012, the sun and the Earth will come into alignment with the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Disastrous cosmic forces will be unleashed at the moment this occurs. Alternatively, the Earth will be harmed through alignment with a supermassive black hole at the center of galaxy. Or by aligning with all of the other planets.

The Facts: Every year in late December, the Earth and the sun do align closely with the center of the galaxy, but this year's alignment won't be exact. The Earth also won't be aligned with other planets in late December.

"Alignments occur. They're interesting from a pictorial point of view, but they really have no bearing and effect on the earth," said Yeomans.

Black holes do have gravitational pull, but the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy is tremendously distant from us -- about 28,000 light years away, according to Hertz, director of astrophysics at NASA headquarters -- and its gravitational effects on the earth are negligible. Hertz said black holes don't emit radiation.

"We can't even see the black hole at the center of the galaxy," he said. "The only reason we know it's there is because we can see stars orbiting it."

EARTH'S CRUST SPINS 180 DEGREES

Myth: On Dec. 21, the earth's crust will change rotation, tearing apart land masses and wiping out the population. Alternatively, the globe will flip around 180 degrees when the poles shift in December.

The Facts: Earth has two kinds of poles: rotational and magnetic. People who believe this myth are confusing the two, according to Fraknoi.

The axis of rotation is the imaginary line through the center of the Earth, around which the planet spins. It doesn't move. By contrast, the magnetic poles aren't fixed to one location. They're a reflection of the magnetic field that exists on the planet. The magnetic poles drift a little bit each year because of the complexity of the electrical currents inside the Earth. They can also swap places over long geological periods.

Fraknoi says this "small core of scientific truth" has been twisted into a doomsday myth by some people posting messages on the Web.

"Somehow, people have gotten (magnetic poles) mixed up with the rotational pole, so they say, 'My goodness, on Dec. 21, in one day, there's going to be a flip of the earth's rotation, so that we're going to either rotate the other way, or the whole planet is going to turn upside down.' This is absolutely ridiculous," he said.

The Earth's magnetic poles only swap places about once every 400,000 years, according to Morrison, and such a change isn't expected for several millenia.

If a magnetic change occurred, it might theoretically be accompanied by higher radiation levels, but life on Earth has continued to thrive and evolve in the past in spite of similar events, Fraknoi said.

While it's true that magnetic poles can shift over time, Fraknoi said it's nearly inconceivable that the earth's rotation could change, or that the entire globe would flip 180 degrees. He pointed out that reversing the Earth's rotation would require the influence of another tremendously large object in space, which would already be detectable.

KILLER METEORITE

Myth: A large meteorite is destined to slam into the Earth in December, wiping out the inhabitants of the planet.

The Facts: The Earth could conceivably be struck by a large meteorite, but scientists agree that such a collision isn't going to happen in 2012. Earth's atmosphere is actually bombarded by meteors on a daily basis; basketball-size objects come in a couple of times a day, and objects the size of a Volkswagen come in every couple of weeks. But they burn up before reaching the Earth's surface.

Objects must be at least 40 meters in diameter to break through the atmosphere and cause ground damage, according to Yeomans. That only occurs about once every 500 years, he said.

"We know of no objects that are really of a concern to Earth, either this December or for the next several years," said Yeomans, manager of the near-Earth object project office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The last big impact from a meteorite was 65 million years ago, leading to the extinction of the dinosaurs, according to Morrison. NASA now monitors the activity of large asteroids through a project called the "Spaceguard Survey," and provides data about incoming objects online. It has a catalogue of about 10,00 asteroids, with determined orbits.

"NASA is very aware of this issue and is making great strides to predict any large objects that are incoming," Yeomans said.

SOLAR FLARE

Myth: A gigantic solar flare will occur in December, wreaking havoc on the Earth by knocking out electronics. Alternatively, a tear in the earth's magnetosphere will expose the Earth to harmful radiation from the sun.

The Facts: Solar activity has a regular cycle, with peaks approximately every 11 years, according to NASA. Near these activity peaks, solar flares can cause some interruption of satellite communications.

The next solar maximum will occur in the 2012-2014 time frame, but it isn't expected to be particularly intense, according to NASA.

"This solar cycle is sort of the wimpiest solar cycle in the space age," said Guhathakurta, who studies space weather at NASA headquarters. "It is lower than what we had even expected."

In addition, NASA has developed tools to keep tabs on solar activity, and it doesn't look like a powerful solar storm will take place in December, Guhathakurta said. NASA can now monitor solar activity in real-time from different vantage points, and abnormal activity doesn't go unnoticed, she said.

If a solar region looks particular active, NASA has to ability to issue a warning to operators of potentially sensitive electronics, such as power grids, advising them to power down before impact.

Solar storms don't pose a direct physical threat to human beings on Earth, such as exposure to radiation or fire, Guhathakurta said, but they can severely damage electronics.

The magnetosphere is a projection of the Earth's magnetic field into space. It shields the Earth like a cocoon from the harmful radiation of the sun, enabling life to be generated on the planet. When radiation does breach the magnetosphere, it can propagate toward the planet, producing magnetic storms.

Particles from the sun can also create electromagnetic fluctuations that can interfere with communication tools and electronics. For example, it was a magnetic storm that led to a blackout in portions of Canada during the 1989 Hydro-Quebec power failure.

Engineers are learning how to build electronics that are protected against most solar storms, according to NASA.

"Yes, these particles can penetrate through our magnetosphere," Guhathakurta said, "but even that, we are able to guide people through..."



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