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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Return of (DUN DUN DUNNNN) the Chaos Cloud: The Chaosening

By Phil Plait

Today is April Fools’ Day, so what better time to deflate foolishness?

I’m starting to get a trickle of emails and tweets asking me about something called a “chaos cloud,” a cosmic phenomenon that is due to destroy the Earth in June 2014.

Yeah, except not so much. There’s no such thing as a chaos cloud, there’s nothing out there that’s headed our way for a June doomsday rendezvous, and this whole thing is based on a hoax. But besides that …

I’ve written about this before because this story got its start way back in 2005, and is no doubt resurfacing because of its imminent due date. And it came from that impeccable news source, the Weekly World News. So right away that should tell you all you need to know! To be clear, WWN published made-up stories with ridiculous premises, and most people who read it were in on the joke. Unless you think that Bat Boy lives in the chaos cloud.

Sadly, the WWN print edition died in 2007, and a search of its website doesn’t produce anything. The only quote I have from the original article is that the cloud

... dissolves everything in its path, including comets, asteroids, planets and entire stars -- and it's headed directly toward Earth!

Sounds scary! Except for the whole not existing thing. There really isn’t anything in nature that can do that sort of thing except for a big black hole, and if there were such an object just months away from the Earth, it would be pretty dang obvious in the sky.

I did find an article on Yahoo from 2006 that gives a rather credulous description of what the cloud can do:”

But on April 6, 2005 by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers detected something so shocking … something they have named a "chaos cloud." The Chaos Cloud is a mass that appears to dissolve everything that gets in its path including planets, asteroids, and stars. Astronomers seemed to have been scared stiff when they discovered that this cloud is headed directly toward Earth. Over ten million miles wide and detected to be the likeness of an acid nebula, astronomers have estimated it's [sic] arrival to Earth at 9:15 a.m. EDT on June 1, 2014. As of right now there is not much information being released about this so called Chaos Cloud, some people believe it only to be a theory, others believe it to be fact because it is written about in their favorite science news column.

There’s a lot to trigger your skeptical alarms in that article. First off, what the heck is an “acid nebula”? I’ve been an astronomer 30 years, and I’m pretty sure that term has never been used in the journals. Second, the arrival date is awfully precise for something that’s so huge (and doesn’t have discrete edges). Third, even if it were moving relatively rapidly toward Earth, given its physical size (and calculating its distance given the known arrival date and speed) it would appear to be bigger than the full moon in the sky! That would be tough to hide.

So yeah, I’m guessing it’s not real.

You can find other similarly conspiratorial musings around the wWb, like this discussion forum (in French) and this page (also in French). Better places to go for information would be Snopes (of course!) and Wikipedia, which have somewhat more prosaic explanations.

And I have to laugh: As I looked into this ridiculousness once again after a nine-year hiatus, I wondered if it might be based on a real object, a gas cloud that is right now heading for a potentially spectacular tryst with our galaxy’s central super massive black hole. That (very real) cloud, named G2, was first detected in 2002 but not a lot was known about it until 2011 or so. I wondered about this because the chaos cloud was supposed to be affiliated with a black hole and give off high-energy radiation. That’s a similar fate awaiting G2, but given the timing I think it’s just coincidence. More likely some wag at the WWN simply made the whole thing up out of thin vacuum.

Remember, folks: If you see something on the Internet, that doesn’t make it true. In many cases that’s a strike against it! And if it has to do with some doom and/or gloom coming at us from the skies, your best bet is to check with me first. That’s kinda my thing.

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