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Rocket at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett F...

Rocket at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

NASA scientists took time on Wednesday (Nov. 28) to soothe 2012 doomsday fears, warning against the dark side of Mayan apocalypse rumors — frightened children and suicidal teens who truly fear the world may come to an end Dec. 21.

These fears are based on misinterpretations of the Mayan calendar. On the 21st, the date of the winter solstice, a calendar cycle called the 13th b’ak’tun comes to an end. Although Maya scholars agree that the ancient Maya would not have seen this day as apocalyptic, rumors have spread that a cosmic event may end life on Earth on that day.

Thus NASA’s involvement. The space agency maintains a 2012 information page debunking popular Mayan apocalypse rumors, such as the idea that a rogue planet will hit Earth on Dec. 21, killing everyone. (In fact, astronomers are quite good at detecting near-Earth objects, and any wandering planet scheduled to collide with Earth in three weeks would be the brightest object in the sky behind the sun and moon by now.)

“There is no true issue here,” David Morrison, an astrobiologist at NASA Ames Research Center, said during a NASA Google+ Hangout event today (Nov. 28). “This is just a manufactured fantasy.” [End of the World? Top Doomsday Fears]

Real-world consequences

Unfortunately, Morrison said, the fantasy has real-life consequences. As one of NASA’s prominent speakers on 2012 doomsday myths, Morrison said, he receives many emails and letters from worried citizens, particularly young people. Some say they can’t eat, or are too worried to sleep, Morrison said. Others say they’re suicidal.

“While this is a joke to some people and a mystery to others, there is a core of people who are truly concerned,” he said.

Not every 2012 apocalypse believer thinks the world will end on Dec. 21. Some, inspired by New Age philosophies, expect a day of universal peace and spiritual transformation. But it’s impressionable kids who have NASA officials worried.

“I think it’s evil for people to propagate rumors on the Internet to frighten children,” Morrison said.

Myths and misconceptions

NASA scientists took questions via social media in the hour-long video chat, debunking doomsday myths from the rogue planet Nibiru to the danger of killer solar flares.

In fact, said NASA heliophysicist Lika Guhathakurta, it’s true that the sun is currently in an active phase of its cycle, meaning electromagnetic energy has picked up. Large solar flares can impact electronics and navigation systems on Earth, but satellites monitoring the sun give plenty of warning and allow officials to compensate for the extra electromagnetic activity when it hits our atmosphere. What’s more, Guhathakurta said, this particular solar maximum is the “wimpiest” in some time — scientists have no reason to expect solar storms beyond what our planet has weathered in the past.

Nor are any near-Earth objects, planetary or otherwise, threatening to slam into our planet on Dec. 21, said Don Yeomans, a planetary scientist who tracks near-Earth objects at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The only close asteroid approach on the horizon is forecast to occur on Feb. 13, 2013, when an asteroid will pass within 4.5 Earth radii to our planet (for perspective, Earth’s radius is 3,963 miles, or 6,378 kilometers). The asteroid is not going to hit Earth, Yeomans said.

Other rumors — that the Earth’s magnetic field will suddenly reverse or that the planet will travel almost 30,000 light-years and fall into the black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy — were also dismissed. (A light-year is the distance light travels in one year, or about 6 trillion miles, or 10 trillion km.)

One popular rumor that the planet will undergo a complete blackout from Dec. 23 to 25 earned a “What?” and blank looks from the panel of scientists.

Ultimately, concerns about Earth’s fate would be better focused on slow-acting problems such as climate change rather than some sort of cosmic catastrophe, said Andrew Fraknoi, an astronomer at Foothill College in California.

Mitzi Adams, a heliophysicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, agreed.

“The greatest threat to Earth in 2012, at the end of this year and in the future, is just from the human race itself,” Adams said.

Don’t Panic! 2012 Doomsday Myths Debunked by NASA

It Will Be Okay
According to a recent poll, 10 percent of people around the globe worry that the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012, as some spurious interpretations of the Mayans’ long-count calendar predict.

The doomsayers cite several different potential agents of apocalypse, including a collision with the supposed rogue planet Nibiru, a catastrophic solar storm or an unfortunate planetary alignment.

But it’s all nonsense, NASA assures us. Here’s a look at some of the most prevalent 2012 doomsday myths, and some NASA-provided reasons why we shouldn’t retreat into our bunkers.

A Smash-up with Nibiru (or Planet X, or Eris)
Nibiru and other stories about wayward planets are an Internet hoax. There is no factual basis for these claims.

If Nibiru or Planet X were real and headed for an encounter with Earth in 2012, astronomers would have been tracking it for at least the past decade, and it would be visible by now to the naked eye.

Obviously, it does not exist. Eris is real, but it is a dwarf planet similar to Pluto that will remain in the outer solar system; the closest it can come to Earth is about 4 billion miles.

Disastrous Cosmic Alignments
There are no planetary alignments in the next few decades, Earth will not cross the galactic plane in 2012, and even if these alignments were to occur, their effects on the Earth would be negligible.

The Earth and sun align with the approximate center of the Milky Way galaxy every December, but that is an annual event of no consequence for us

Superflares from the Sun
Solar activity has a regular cycle, with peaks approximately every 11 years. Near these activity peaks, solar flares can cause some interruption of satellite communications, although engineers are learning how to build electronics that are protected against most solar storms.

But there is no special risk associated with 2012. The next solar maximum will occur in the 2012-2014 timeframe and is predicted to be an average solar cycle, no different than previous cycles throughout history.

A Reversal of Earth’s Poles
A reversal in the rotation of Earth is impossible. There are slow movements of the continents (Antarctica was near the equator hundreds of millions of years ago, for example), but that is irrelevant to claims of reversal of the rotational poles.

However, many of the disaster websites pull a bait-and-switch to fool people. They claim a relationship between the rotation and the magnetic polarity of Earth, which does change irregularly, with a magnetic reversal taking place every 400,000 years on average.

As far as we know, such a magnetic reversal doesn’t cause any harm to life on Earth. A magnetic reversal is very unlikely to happen in the next few millennia, anyway

Eruptions of the Yellowstone volcanic system have included the two largest volcanic eruptions in North America in the past few million years

Eruptions of the Yellowstone volcanic system have included the two largest volcanic eruptions in North America in the past few million years; the third largest was at Long Valley in California and produced the Bishop ash bed. The biggest of the Yellowstone eruptions occurred 2.1 million years ago, depositing the Huckleberry Ridge ash bed.
Credit: USGS

Supervolcano Eruptions
Earth is no stranger to volcanic eruptions, or even the rare supervolcano blast. But will a supervolcano end the world on Dec. 21, 2012?Don’t hold your breath, NASA says.

According to SPACE.com’s sister site OurAmazingPlanet:

There is evidence that volcanic activity in Yellowstone will eventually lead to a colossal eruption capable of covering half the United States in 3 feet (1 meter) of ash. However, experts agree that super-eruptions are exceedingly rare, and the odds that one will occur in our lifetimes are vanishingly small. [Full Story]

A Catastrophic Impact
Earth has always been subject to impacts by comets and asteroids, although big hits are very rare. The last big impact was 65 million years ago, and that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Today, NASA astronomers are carrying out a search called the Spaceguard Survey to find any large near-Earth asteroids long before they hit. We have already determined that there are no threatening asteroids as large as the one that killed the dinosaurs.

All of this work is done openly, with the discoveries posted every day on the NASA NEO Program Office website. So you can see for yourself that nothing is predicted to hit in 2012.

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