Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 19, 2010

Asteroid Apophis and the Michael Horn Claims of Billy Meier


Introduction

I was recently (last week) interviewed yet again on The Conspiracy Skeptic podcast in what I thought would be a short (20 minute) talk about the Russian press release of asteroid Apophis and the AAS press release that the star T Pyx may be 1,000 parsecs away instead of ~3500 parsecs away which would be bad news for Earth if/when it goes supernova. I encourage my readers to listen to that episode for more information, especially the introduction about asteroid Apophis as I’m going to be skipping over much of that in this post.

Anyway, coincidentally, just two nights after the interview went live, Coast to Coast AM had Michael Horn, the “Authorized American Media Representative” for Billy Meier (a Swiss UFO guy), talk about Apophis and spew out some fairly blatant pseudoastronomy that I felt I should address. Note that this post is NOT about Billy Meier and his alleged UFO contacts and predictions, nor Michael Horn’s media-loving frenzies. It is ONLY about what Michael Horn stated on the January 14, 2010 episode of Coast to Coast AM.

Update: I have posted a follow-up to this entry, “Follow-Up on Apophis and Michael Horn / Billy Meier Documented Claims.”

Added (11/09/2011): One minor correction has been made.

Overview of Asteroid Apophis

I’m going to be very brief here in my overview because I go into a fair amount of depth about this Earth-crossing asteroid during my interview. Apophis was discovered in 2004 and preliminary calculations gave it about a 1 in 40 chance of hitting Earth in 2029, and if it didn’t hit then, a possibility of its orbit being altered in 2029 by passing through a “keyhole” region of space. If it were to pass through this keyhole, then its orbit would be altered in such a way that it will hit Earth in 2036.

Needless to say, in the 5 years since this discovery, the asteroid has been observed hundreds if not thousands of times and its orbit has been better-defined. As a result, the latest odds of an impact in 2036 are now estimated at around 1 in 300,000. Definitely not worth worrying about, but it does raise awareness to the fact that one day there will be an asteroid that will hit Earth that is large enough to do serious damage – wipe out a city or small country, for example.

A slight side-note is a discussion of the Torino Scale which is an integer (0-10) and color-coded (white, green, yellow, orange, red) scale developed in 1995. It is a scale of classifying how dangerous an asteroid is to Earth. The 0-10 integer value is based upon the size of the asteroid and probability of impact with 10 (red) being a dinosaur-killer. When it was first discovered, Apophis was rated a Level 4 (yellow), which is defined as, “A close encounter, meriting attention by astronomers. Current calculations give a 1% or greater chance of collision capable of regional devastation. Most likely, new telescopic observations will lead to re-assignment to Level 0. Attention by public and by public officials is merited if the encounter is less than a decade away.” It has since been down-graded to Level 0.

Enter late December 2009, when the head of the Russian space agency told reporters (at least in the English translation) that they were assembling a team to put together a mission to nudge Apophis away from impact. The story – again, at least in the English translations – seemed to imply the Russians thought it would impact in 2036 (“by 2032” was the quote, but I address that in my interview) despite the latest odds by NASA and other researchers. In other words, this statement by him added much fuel to the fire of conspiracy theorists.

Overview of Billy Meier and Michael Horn

I said I wasn’t going to get into this, but I think there does need to be a very brief background into these two personages. Billy Meier is a Swiss farmer who is fairly old – born in 1937 he turns 73 this year in February. Meier made a name for himself in the UFO community by producing alleged UFO photographs and video that is very widely regarded as fake, even among many if not most UFO researchers. He claims to be in contact with the aliens, who are from the Pleiades, and are named the “Plejarens.”

Michael Horn, as stated in my Introduction, is the “Authorized American Media Representative” for Billy Meier. In other words, his English-speaking spokesman who very strongly pushes Meier’s story. He has a well-documented habit of demanding time on television, radio, and podcast shows to advocate Meier’s story, including claiming that people agree with him when they don’t.

As I said, I really don’t want to get into these two right now because it would be a VERY lengthy blog post – but I thought I needed to introduce the players. Episode 85 of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe has a fairly lengthy discussion of Meier and Horn, starting about 30 min. 30 sec. into the episode.

Michael Horn’s Statements About Asteroid Apophis

In Hour 4 of the January 14 broadcast of Coast to Coast AM, Horn states several things about Apophis, though there are really only 3 or 4 main ones that I want to address.

He starts out stating the case that Meier predicted (through information from the Plejarens) that Apophis would be discovered and would impact Earth well before the asteroid was found by scientists. I could not find the sample documentation Horn stated was on his website, though admittedly I did not look too hard. However, from his statements on the air, it seems as though Meier did not actually name the object nor provide any additional material, but he stated that it would be called “The Red Meteor.” For the sake of this post, I will assume that Meier actually did make this prediction, that there would be a “Red Meteor” that would hit Earth in the future.

Update: I have done additional research and made a follow-up post about this “prediction”: “Follow-Up on Apophis and Michael Horn / Billy Meier Documented Claims.”

The next claim is that if it hits in 2029 or 2036, it will hit “right in the heart of Eastern Europe – Russia, Ukraine, … Germany … you have millions of people dead, tremendous releases of lava and gases, a wall of sulfurous waste starts coming across, the sky is darkened” (7:20-7:30 into the episode). This is another claim that I’m not going to dispute, though I’ll mention that a “release of lava and gas” would not happen unless this ~270-m-wide asteroid were to hit near an active volcano.

Anyway, the first claim I want to address occurs at about 10:00-11:45 into the program. The jist of what Horn states has to do with trying to do a post-hoc analysis/justification of why the alleged Plejarens call this object “Red.” He says he was contacted by an Austrian physicist who linked it to the Torino scale. Quoting the other person, Horn stated, “‘This could be’ – I’m not saying with certainty … – ‘their way, by naming it this, of giving us the ultimate clue we need’ – which this translates to, ‘this is going to hit your planet.’ … This just blew my mind. … Here’s the kicker: The scale wasn’t even developed until 1995!” (George’s response was, “Jeez! He was way ahead.”)

Hopefully, dear reader, I don’t have to point out how much of a retrodiction this is. But, just to name a few reasons: Meier could have picked “red” because historically it’s a color of destruction. He could have picked red because many people think that Planet X is red. He could have picked red just on a whim. He could have picked red because it’s a “danger” color and most scales use red for bad things – just look at the dashboard of your car. In short, entertaining this idea of the Torino Scale as the reason why an alleged alien allegedly told Meier that an object that will hit Earth is called “red” is one of the largest stretches of correlation that I’ve heard. (Source: Common sense.)

The second claim I want to address occurs at about 12:30-13:15 into the program: “Skeptics will say, ‘Well, you know, he’s calling it a “meteor” why isn’t he calling it an “asteroid?”‘ And here’s the last piece of the puzzle that I found! According to something called the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society, Apophis is a ‘good match’ for a rare type of stony meteorite known as a Type LL Chondrite. So they gave Meier a clue in the first part of it – ‘red’ – and they told him not to call it an asteroid, but a meteor. And here, in totally unrelated information …, they are corroborating this.”

To be blunt, this is one of the most ridiculous confusions/entwinings of nomenclature that I’ve heard. An asteroid is a rocky body in space. A meteor is when it’s in the atmosphere. A meteorite is when it hits the ground. Saying that something is an LL chondrite has nothing to do with where it is – on Earth, in our atmosphere, or in space – but has to do with its mineralogy and iron content. Saying that an asteroid is a “close match” to a type of meteorite just means that we know what the spectra of an LL chondrite is and that Apophis matches that more closely than it matches other known types of meteorites that were once asteroids. Trying to claim that because the DPS states it’s a close match is justification for why Meier calls this a “Meteor” instead of “asteroid” is playing nonsensical word games. (Source: Dictionary.)

Oh, and just for your information, LL chondrites (Low-iron, Low-metal) comprise the smallest fraction of the most common type of asteroids (chondrites) at about 10-11%, meaning they are about 8-9% of all asteroids out there. So Apophis had about a 1 in 10 chance of being an LL chondritic asteroid. (Source: “Planetary Materials,” J.J. Papike ed. (1998).)

Final Thoughts

Again, without getting into the broader Meier/Horn claims, just talking about Apophis, claims, you can see fairly obvious (and poor, in my opinion) attempts to retrodict a non-event by playing word games and drawing causal links that an elementary school student would question. The best estimates today are that Apophis, as its orbit and the body itself are better understood, has a continually decreasing chance of going through the keyhole in 2029 that would send it on a collision course in 2036. As I state in The Conspiracy Skeptic interview, the Russians may have been mis-quoted, they may have been using Apophis’ close-miss as a wake-up call that the world should have in place a plan to deal with an incoming asteroid – one that really will hit us.

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