Exposing PseudoAstronomy

February 3, 2009

Planet X and 2012: Why Planet X Is NOT Coming in 2012


Continuing my series on Planet X and 2012, one of the main categories of claims deals with the amorphous “Planet X.” I use the adjective “amorphous” instead of “mysterious” or “elusive” because nearly everyone has a different hypothesis about what “Planet X” really is (and I’m going to drop the quotes for the rest of this post because it’s faster to write without them). Is it a large asteroid? Or a rocky planet? Or a gas giant planet? Or is it another star? Or is it something completely different?

I’m going to save going over those claims for another post. I’m also going to save the claims dealing with what will supposedly happen with Planet X for other posts, or ones that I’ve already covered (such as the Pole Shift). Rather, this post is really aimed at nipping Planet X in the butt before I even go over the specific claims – I’m going to show why we know that there is no Planet X coming for us in 2012 – or the near future, in general.

All posts in this series:

The Main Premise Behind Planet X

The basic idea behind Planet X is that a large object is currently approaching Earth and it will get very close to us towards the end of 2012. Doomsdayers disagree as to what exactly the object is, from where it’s approaching (as in within or above/below the plane of the solar system), and what exactly it will do to us. But, the real heart of the claims is that Planet X is out there, and either we just haven’t found it yet (even though it’s only 4 years away) or we have found it, but Big Government won’t let you know about it.

Knowing What’s In the Solar System

I discussed in my first post in this Planet X & 2012 series the real historical history behind the solar system’s Planet Xs. The basic idea is that the planets didn’t behave quite as they were supposed to given the gravitational forces by the other known planets in the solar system. Hypotheses were made about where the hidden mass would be coming from, the region was searched, and planets were discovered.

Today, we have very accurate models that take into account objects in the solar system ~1000 km in diameter and larger (this includes dwarf planets and some moons). These are used to calculate orbits which are included in every piece of astronomy planetarium-like software (such as Celestia, Starry Night, and The Sky on the freeware / commercial side).

Orbits are computed to even higher accuracy for space programs such as ESA, JAXA, and of course NASA, which have to know how everything is going to affect a spacecraft’s trajectory, how much fuel will be needed, and how and when it will get to its target.

The point that I’m attempting to make here is that if there were a large object out there, we would have to know about it.

What Do We Observe?

The claim has often been made that it’s out there but we just haven’t observed it yet — after all, the sky is a big place!

But, this claim is just wrong. We don’t have to observe the object with telescopes to know it’s there. After all, we don’t observe dark matter, but we know it’s there (and I will cover dark matter denialism in another post). We know dark matter is present because we observe its gravitational effects. And so if there were an unobserved, unseen Planet X that was fast-approaching Earth – even if it were 4 years away – we would know about it. Spacecraft would be slightly off-target. Planets would be where they’re supposed to be.

There are thousands if not tens or hundreds of thousands of amateur astronomers out there who are searching the sky every night to look at known objects or looking for unknown objects. If a planet were experiencing the gravitational effects of an incoming planet or star, the masses of people who rely upon calculated orbits without that object would notice that something was wrong.

The argument that amateurs wouldn’t know any better is also fallacious because quite often, amateur astronomers are better-versed with the sky than most professional astronomers. A professional astronomer – even if they are an observationalist, may know a few constellations, but likely they will only know where their object or objects of interest lie (I’m speaking from experience here). Amateurs, on the other hand, are very well-versed with where objects are in the sky, what you can see if you look in a certain patch, where asteroids will be, and where comets will be. So amateurs are more likely to notice the perturbations than professionals.

The other claim is that Planet X is known about but Big Government is hiding it from You. In other words, the “conspiracy theory.” But again, this is really not possible. For the same reasons given above that many thousands of amateur astronomers would see the gravitational effects of this object, they would also very likely find the object. Amateur telescopes can observe asteroids that are as small as a few tens of kilometers across (the size of a city). There’s no way that they would miss a planet – or especially a star – that is only 4 years away from hitting us. And there’s no way to keep many thousands of amateur astronomers from all over the world quiet.

Final Thoughts

The claim that Planet X is out there and is going to hit us soon is easy to propagate because astronomers are constantly finding new objects in the solar system. New asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects are being discovered weekly. But people who are lead to believe the Planet X claims don’t take into account what it would really take to “hide” such an object from the tens to hundreds of thousands of people all over the world who observe the night sky. The gravitational effects from the object would be observed, and it should be bright enough – being only 4 years away from reaching us – that it should be plainly visible in the night sky.

And yet, it’s not observed. Its effects are not observed. So Planet X proponents resort to conspiracies to explain it, or they resort to simply ignoring the lack of evidence for it, effectively taking the “oh yeah!?” approach and not answering the questions or criticisms leveled.

As a final piece, in the interest of full academic honesty, I should note that it is not really possible to prove a negative. It is very remotely possible that there is a Planet X out there and we haven’t observed its effects for one reason or another. However, the likelihood of this being the case – as I have pointed out – is as close to 0% as is scientifically possible.

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