Skepticism

Planet Nine is NOT Going to Murder Everyone on Earth This Month

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“A newly discovered planet could destroy Earth as soon as this month,” reports the New York Post. As soon as this month! Thank god I learned about this before filing my taxes.

What could this headline possibly mean? If you’re anything like me, your first thought was that a previously undiscovered planet is, for some reason, hurtling toward the earth like a bloated asteroid, and the only thing that can save us is a plucky crew of miners led by Bruce Willis. This actually IS a common fear — so common that it has a name: the Nibiru cataclysm. The first person to suggest it was a woman who thought aliens were sending her telepathic warnings about it. As you might guess, it’s a complete myth.

But in THIS case, the death planet in question is one that is supposedly floating around the outer reaches of our solar system, flying through the Oort Cloud on its orbit and knocking some of the many comets there into Earth. Every 26 or 27 million years, this results in a mass extinction event. And it might happen again this month! In fact, scientists recently discovered “Planet 9” so this is pretty much an inescapable fate.

Scary! Or maybe not. Let’s look at some of the details. The person making this claim is Daniel Whitmire, who The Sun says is “of the University of Louisiana,” but which they should say is formerly of the University of Louisiana, as he is a retired astrophysicist and current math instructor at the University of Arkansas. Which is fine, and nothing to be ashamed of, but let’s just be clear about the facts.

Whitmire’s hypothesis, which he has been pushing for many years now, is that a large gas giant is causing occasional bursts of asteroids to come flying at the Earth. He suggests that this leads to large impacts that cause extinction-level events that seem to occur every 26 or 27 million years. I say “seem to” because it’s not even an accepted fact that there’s an event like that every 26 or 27 million years. That hypothesis has some support among scientists and some compelling evidence but is still considered controversial.

If it is true, there are several other explanations for why it may be happening. One is that it’s a coincidence. Another is that it may coincide with our solar system moving through a particularly bumpy part of the galaxy as the sun goes through its own orbit. And yes, another is that there is a ninth planet flinging rocks at us from afar.

See, Whitmire’s originally postulated planet was called “Tyche.” He said it was a gas giant in the Oort Cloud, which meant that while it was extremely far away, it was big enough to be observed. So NASA tried to find it, and they couldn’t. In 2014, NASA used the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer to conclusively rule out the possibility of that planet existing.

But also in 2014, scientists started finding evidence of a much smaller planet out beyond Neptune. So Whitmire wrote another paper trying to figure out how these new observations could be twisted to fit his old, dead hypothesis. That paper was accepted in October of 2015, just a few months before Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin announced their new observations that pretty much rule out this new planet as being the Tyche of Whitmire’s dreams.

The actual, more-likely-to-exist Planet 9 is way too small and too close to the sun to get anywhere near to affecting comets in the Oort Cloud. In fact, it’s a good ten times closer to the sun than Whitmire’s hypothetical Tyche, and while Tyche would have taken 1.8 million years to orbit the sun, Planet 9 only takes 10,000 years, meaning that if Whitmire was right, Planet 9 would be firing extinction-level rocks at us so often humanity would have never made it past the single-cell phase.

So to sum up, Whitmire had a good hypothesis that was proven to be incorrect. Now he’s scrambling to make his old hypothesis fit new evidence, but it simply doesn’t. I can sympathize with a retired astrophysicist trying to keep his one claim to fame relevant in the face of contradictory evidence, but the worst part is that he doesn’t seem to be stopping any of these media outlets from using his already outdated paper to make ridiculous, fear-mongering pronouncements about the death of all humanity, which is frankly pretty shitty.

And so what about this “it could happen by the end of the month” nonsense? Well, I can’t even find Whitmire claiming that bullshit. According to paper-of-record The Sun, the source for this is “some.” Literally, “some.” Here is the entirety of the article’s explanation of this rather important detail: “Now some are convinced there will be a collision or a near miss before the end of April.”

I’m not making it up. That’s it. Some are convinced.

So I’m not sure about you, but I’m not convinced. Which means, unfortunately….I should probably go pay my taxes.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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3 Comments

  1. April 12, 2016 at 5:01 pm —

    Planet Nine from Outer Space

  2. April 12, 2016 at 5:39 pm —

    Rebecca Watson,

    You should pay your taxes. They got Al Capone for income tax evasion when they couldn’t even convict him of any other crime.

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