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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

No, Planet Nine Will Not Send a Wave of Earth-Destroying Comets to Kill Us All

By Phil Plait
Don't panic. Credit: Stocktrek Images Inc. / Alamy / Phil Plait

<sarcasm> Oh good, I get to write yet another article about factually challenged fearmongering nonsense. </sarcasm>


Quite a few people on Twitter and Facebook pointed out this one to me. The guilty party is an article in the U.K. tabloid fish-wrappery the Sun posted on Wednesday. It had this breathless (and grossly ridiculous) headline: “Mysterious Planet Wiped Out Life on Earth Once and Could Do It Again THIS MONTH”.

Yeah, not so much. The article itself then goes on to make a series of increasingly shaky and completely wrong claims (what follows are direct quotations from the article):

  • “Planet Nine—a new planet discovered at the edge of the solar system in January—has triggered comet showers that bomb the Earth’s surface, killing all life, says Daniel Whitmire, of the University of Louisiana.”
  • “Professor Whitmire claims Planet Nine's passage through a rock laden area called the Kuiper Belt is responsible for the ‘extinction events’.”
  • “Now some are convinced there will be a collision or a near miss before the end of April.”
  • “Nemesis or Nibiru were widely dismissed as crack-pot pseudo-science—until Planet Nine was identified in January by the California Institute of Technology, in the US.”

These claims—not to put too fine a point on it—are 100 percent male bovine excrement.

First, Planet Nine has not been “discovered.” At best, astronomers Batygin and Brown found indirect evidence for the existence of a massive planet out past Neptune (as have other astronomers before them). It’s pretty interesting evidence, even compelling, but does not yet add up to a discovery.

Second, Daniel Whitmire does not make the claim that the planet (if it exists) causes extinction events. In a recent paper, he does a bit of math showing that the existence of a trans-Neptunian planet is consistent with the idea of periodic showers of comets raining down on Earth (more on this in a moment), but he does not claim it actually does this. I’m also not sure the planet he hypothesizes is consistent with the evidence presented by Batygin and Brown; some of the orbital and planetary characteristics are similar, others aren’t.

Third, he doesn’t say it “killed all life” on Earth, because that would be really, really dumb. Mass extinctions don’t kill all life on Earth, or else we wouldn’t be here. They kill many, even most, species, but not all. I’m not nitpicking; in an article apparently designed to instill fear, phrasing like that is important.

Be a hoopy frood. Credit: Shutterstock / Shay Yacobinski

Fourth, who exactly are these “some” people who claim there will be a collision in April? The article never says. Quite literally; the claim is made and then never followed up on. I could just as easily say, “Some say the author of the Sun article ate 300 puppies for breakfast”. As long as I (and one other person) says that sentence out loud it’s factually correct, though (presumably) not true.

Fifth, Nibiru was and still is dismissed as sheer crackpottery, whether or not Planet Nine exists. That’s because it is sheer crackpottery. The claims made about Nibiru are completely and utterly wrong, based on bad biblical and archaeological interpretations, and ruled out by an observational survey. But gee, other than that …

Nemesis—the name given to a purported faint and cool companion to the Sun—wasn’t a crackpot idea but has pretty much been ruled out over the years by better and better observations.

Sixth, again, Planet Nine has not been identified. C’mon.

Seventh, the basis of all this silliness is the idea that mass extinctions are periodic—that is, occur on a fairly regular cycle. But this periodicity may not even exist.

Cycles of extinctions have been claimed before, but they’re pretty hard to prove. The fossil record is spotty, and it’s hard to get absolute dates for them. There have been claims of a ~60 million periodicity too—I wrote about that one in my book Death From the Skies!, in fact. But these claims struggle with small number statistics, which can make periods look real when they’re not.

I’m not saying the periodicity doesn’t exist, just that it isn’t anywhere near confirmed yet—to be fair to the tabloid, in his paper Whitmire does claim these periodicities are firmly shown. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the case; I’m still pretty skeptical of it. Claims based on this periodicity need to be taken with a very large grain of salt.

So the article in the Sun is just a pile of steaming nonsense.

Not to be outdone, though, the New York Post—another birdcage liner—created an even more ridiculous video with unreferenced information basically lifted directly from the Sun article, but with bonus goofiness added. Like the Sun article, the video says Planet Nine was discovered in January, which isn’t true. Then it says Planet Nine takes 20,000 years to orbit the Sun (this time I mean our star the Sun, not the black hole of folderol the Sun), but again we don’t know that at all.

But wait! There’s more!

The video continues blithely on, saying, “Some scientists believe this is what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.” Actually, no, that impact was most likely a one-off event, not part of a periodic shower of comets, and was likely aided by geological conditions at the time.

Then the video repeats (again, with no references or basis in reality) that Planet Nine may send killer comets our way this month. Worse, it mangles the previously mangled nonsense from the Sun, saying scientists (not just random "some" people) think it may happen again this month.

That’s some mighty fine journalisming, Lou.

Bottom line: Planet Nine, as described by astronomers Brown and Batygin, is likely to exist but has not been found yet. It’s unlikely to cause periodic mass extinctions, which haven’t been shown to exist anyway. And it certainly won’t send a barrage of outer solar system ice our way this month.

In other words, don’t believe what you read in tabloids. Or anywhere, actually. Seek out the actual facts.

And I’ll add that this sort of doomsday-tooting fearmongering is disgusting. It’s irresponsible and mean-spirited. It erodes people’s understanding of science and needlessly scares people just so the paper can sell ads.

And the worst part? They’ll just keep on doing it.

I’ve written on this topic, many, many times before. Here’s a sample:

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