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Concerns about the Solar Maximum and Planet X

Responding to Public Questions and Misconceptions

David Morrison

November 24, 2010

Questions from the public regarding the next solar maximum and the hypothesized "Planet X"

Question: Lately there have been reports that the next solar maximum, or “solar tsunami,” is expected to be devastating to mankind. Meanwhile, it seems that the recent solar flare ejections are already starting to cause panic among some people, some of whom are saying NASA now expects the solar maximum to bring death. I’ve just watched a Discovery Channel show about solar storms. Looking at all that devastation still gives me goosebumps.

The Sun is not our enemy and will not hurt us. NASA has never suggested that the solar maximum could bring death. A lot of shows on the Discovery Channel exaggerate dangers; apparently such shows attract viewers and advertisers. The simple facts are that the Sun has an eleven-year activity cycle, but we cannot accurately predict individual events such as flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). In the case of the largest CMEs, it is possible to damage transformers in electrical grids, and NASA is currently planning to provide accurate warnings to electrical utilities so they can isolate any parts that are likely to be directly affected by solar particles.

Solar scientists expect that the next solar maximum will be in the spring of 2013 and will be unusually weak, but the Sun may have some surprises for us. However, there is nothing about this solar maximum that can hurt us or threaten devastation to mankind. There will be many solar flares between now and 2015, but there are no specific predictions. I think the use of such terms as “solar tsunami” or “solar storm” to describe solar activity is unfortunate. It makes people think of destructive tidal waves or storms on Earth—but the Sun is 150 million kilometers away! There is an especially confusing Fox News interview with cosmologist Michio Kaku that is popular on YouTube. Kaku states that at solar maximum the Sun’s magnetic field suddenly flips and a giant shock wave of radiation heads for Earth, which he warns could disable our civilization. This is not the way the solar cycle works, and it raises greatly exaggerated fears.

The current fear of the solar maximum reminds me of some of the stories that circulated around Y2K. In both cases there were legitimate concerns: to protect older computer systems from the “Y2K bug” and now to protect satellites from solar outbursts. But the dangers to individual people are hugely exaggerated. Assuming you were not killed or seriously hurt by the previous solar maxima in 2001 and 1990, you have nothing to fear from this one.

Question: I really want to believe Nibiru is not real. But why are people still talking about it on YouTube? Do you think the topic will die down? And if it grows, what can we do about it?

This 2012 hoax has been going strong for the past three years, and it shows no sign of dying down. Maybe a few people who post these crazy lies on the Internet and YouTube really believe it, but I suspect most of them are in it for the money. For the truth, I recommend the websites http://2012hoax.org and http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/ask-an-astrobiologist/intro/nibiru-and-doomsday-2012-questions-and-answers. I just returned from a meeting of professional science educators where we discussed at length how to respond to this doomsday hoax. Most of the educators I talked with plan to do more in their communities to inform people, especially to calm the fears that many children have about the end of the world. We are all concerned about the children who write that they are considering suicide before the world ends in 2012 and the mothers who have written that they intend to kill their children and themselves before the destruction begins.

Question: For many years, I have considered Planet X to be a myth. But in the past few weeks I have noticed a very bright “star” to the west, and it is very active. If it is Venus, it is much larger than usual. What do you think it is?

It is Venus. Others have written to me also suggesting it is Nibiru or Planet X, and similar claims were made last year about Jupiter. You can easily look up planet positions on the Internet, for example at www.skyandtelescope.com. I should add that while Venus is very bright, it is not large. All planets are so small that without a telescope they are seen as unresolved point sources. If Venus really looks large to you, you probably need new glasses or contacts. Within the next few months Jupiter (in the east) will displace Venus (in the west) as the brightest planet in the evening sky, and I anticipate that some people will also mistake it for Planet X. I wonder, though, how people can think they have discovered a brilliant planet that 100,000 astronomers have all missed.

Question: I have been told that in our night skies there were two moons visible on August 27, 2010, when Mars approached Earth at the nearest point in their orbits. Is this true?

This is a zombie question: dead a long time but still sure to pop up every summer. Everything you heard is wrong. This past summer Mars was very far from Earth, and it could not be seen even with a telescope. This silly rumor first surfaced in August 2003, when Mars was indeed very close to the Earth (about 55 million kilometers), but the claim about it being as large as the Moon is pure fiction. This is an example of how so much on the Internet is wrong and how difficult it is to get rid of such errors.

David Morrison is a planetary scientist and director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute. He is a Committee for Skeptical Inquiry fellow and a recipient of the American Astronomical Society’s Carl Sagan Award for science popularization. E-mail: david.morrison@nasa.gov. These (slightly edited) questions from the public were received through NASA’s Ask an Astrobiologist website (http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/ask-an-astrobiologist/0).

David Morrison

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David Morrison is a long-time NASA senior scientist and Committee for Skeptical Inquiry fellow. He now divides his time between the SETI Institute and the NASA Lunar Science Institute. He hosts the "Ask an Astrobiologist" column at NASA's website.