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By Michael H. Brown

Recently much has been made of a comet called Elenin (named after its Russian discoverer) that'll fly "close" to the sun -- and earth -- next month, and what its effects could be or may already have been. Some have gone so far as to blame earthquakes on it.

According to NASA, the comet, technically known as C2010 X1, is only a mile or so wide and makes its nearest pass to the sun on September 10 and to the earth on October 16, at which time it will be 32 million miles from us. "You'll probably need a good pair of binoculars, clear skies, and a dark, secluded location to see it even on its brightest night," said expert Don Yeomans of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He called it a "a modest-sized icy dirtball" and says it will exert less gravitational effect on earth than your car does on ocean tides. It would have to hit earth directly, it seems, to have any substantial impact. There are reports that it is already breaking up.

Others have fretted that "behind" the comet -- or somehow in its midst -- is a collapsed star (brown dwarf) or rogue planet that threatens us. There are those who have named the hypothetical objected "planet X" or "Nibiru," citing mythology. Some of this strays quickly into conspiratorial territory (with claims of a NASA cover-up). One has to be very careful about what floats around the internet.

But that there are large unknown bodies out there -- some in our own solar system (in fact, many) -- is admitted by those NASA experts themselves. Are there "unknown" objects? Countless ones. And if and when something approaches us, odds are it will be a surprise.

Unlike Elenin, you won't "see" it coming.

Years ago, when I visited the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to speak with the foremost authorities, Yeomans and others told me they had no real idea of how many comets are in two systems, the Oort Cloud and Kuiper Belt, out there at the edge and then beyond our known solar system (ending with Pluto).

There may well be objects, they told me, larger than Pluto (which many now classify as a large asteroid).

In fact, at least one has been recognized.

Meanwhile, I was told that the greatest threat was a long-term comet like Elenin, but one bigger and coming from the blind side of the sun -- noticed by astronomers only when it was suddenly there hanging in the sky for all of us to see and fret about.

Can you imagine?

This would indeed cause an examination ("illumination") of conscience.

Mysterious observations have been made. Scientists were baffled by a point deep in the sky that was emitting a vague, unidentified light, and also by long dark streaks that had marked the sky before a solar eclipse. Some theorized that there were great cosmic clouds that could plunge earth into total darkness.

What else was out there? What other threats?

The greatest threat we knew of was asteroids. When I interviewed NASA astronomer Eleanor Helin, who discovered the first asteroid between earth and the sun, she told me that there had been a number of quiet, unpublicized scares. "You put the phone down and say, `what do I do now?'" she said. In 1998 an asteroid known as XF-11 was calculated to come dangerously close to earth in 2028 until Helin found an old photograph of it and a recalculation indicated that it would not be so near. The next year there was a scare over asteroid AN10, which was projected to come within 25,000 miles of earth in 2027.

Really: they have no idea. We still don't have a good idea of what's between us and several of the closest planets (the asteroids that in Helin's words are most likely to "whomp" us).

"I know I've been at the telescope more than anyone else I know in my lifetime, and I think you've got to have a hands-on sense and my feeling is that we are going to see an event," Helin, who was portrayed by Jodie Foster in a movie, said.

It was also the opinion of a Harvard astronomer named Brian Marsden. "It seems to me quite likely that in the next five to ten years, given the surveys going on, that we will discover a small object not too far away that in a matter of days is going to come into the earth's atmosphere," he said. "We can say that it will be too small to do any damage, but the fact is that it would be a first and I don't know how the public would take that. I'm not sure how NASA would take that."

He told me that ten years ago.

Only the angels know what is going on out there.

Only God keeps everything on a safe path.

He and He alone holds things together.

There are also millions of comets -- millions. They are out in the Kuiper Belt past Neptune or way beyond Pluto in the Oort Belt, which is estimated to be up to 200,000 times the distance of the sun.

These belts serve as gargantuan reservoirs for comets that are "short-term" if they make their orbits around the sun within 200 years and "long-term" if, like Elenin, which takes 6,500 years, they are less frequent.

It is here that the greatest danger, the terror, resides.

Although the general public is under the impression that every inch of the sky is watched, the reality was that a mere fraction can be monitored. According to another of the foremost experts, Clark R. Chapman, a mountain-sized space rock big enough to disrupt global climate, "could hit tomorrow and we wouldn't even know it was coming." and the warning time, said David Morrison of NASA, "would be zero." We note in Revelation 8:8 where it mentions "something like a huge mountain all in flames" that is "cast into the sea."

Although most comets are small (like Elenin) -- even tiny -- there are also huge ones that are dark and invisible until they approach the sun and even then might arrive with less than three months of notice.

So infrequent are their passes that we had no idea of their existence.

And they would come at speeds greater than those of asteroids (which move at eight times the speed of a bullet, and can cause huge impacts at anything more than half a mile wide).

They are at the root of the very word "disaster" -- which means "evil star" (etymologically dis-evil; aster-star).

They are what Helin called the "stealth bombers in the solar system, the ones that give no warning, that leave no calling card, that are just there in our face," and as she added, "These long-period comets are always being found and just thank God they haven't come that close. Some are earth-crossers, and so you've got to be concerned."

[adapted from Sent To Earth]

[see also: Fact or fringe? Experts discount fears while some claim comet will be problem and NASA: comet will be a 'wimp']

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