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Has the Earth Come Close to Ending in Recent Centuries?

Harold Camping still predicting the end of the world will come tomorrow, Oct. 21, after an obviously failed prediction of May 21 earlier this year. This year's Ig Nobel award in mathematics went to the many doomsdayers who have incorrectly predicted the end of the world.

With all these people deemed as crazies who predict the end of the world each decade, it begs the question, has it ever come close? Has the world ever come close in recent history to actually ending? According to a report that reanalyzed an astronomer's data, it has.

Technology Review (via Gizmodo) reports that on August 12 and 13 in 1883 José Bonilla in Zacatecas in Mexico recorded about 450 objects flying past the Sun over two days for a total of 3.5 hours. This means that more than 3,000 pieces were probably whizzing by during the time he wasn't watching. At the time, his observations were written off as insects or dust, but recent reanalysis reveals another theory. Technology Review continues:

Hector Manterola at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, and a couple of pals, give a different interpretation. They think that Bonilla must have been seeing fragments of a comet that had recently broken up. This explains the 'misty' appearance of the pieces and why they were so close together.

But there's much more that Manterola and co have deduced. They point out that nobody else on the planet seems to have seen this comet passing in front of the Sun, even though the nearest observatories in those days were just a few hundred kilometers away.

That can be explained using parallax. If the fragments were close to Earth, parallax would have ensured that they would not have been in line with the Sun even for observers nearby. And since Mexico is at the same latitude as the Sahara, northern India and south-east Asia, it's not hard to imagine that nobody else was looking.

Manterola and his team predict that the main comet contributing to this debris was more than 1 billion tons and it and its fragments are estimated to have passed within a few hundred miles of Earth. Technology Review continues:

Each fragment was at least as big as the one thought to have hit Tunguska. Manterola and co end with this: "So if they had collided with Earth we would have had 3,275 Tunguska events in two days, probably an extinction event."

The Tunguska impact refers to an asteroid that hit Siberia in 1908. According to NASA, the blast affected 800 square miles and felled 80 million trees.

Luckily, NASA's space telescope was recently reported as finding fewer asteroids near Earth than previously thought. In 1998, NASA was tasked with identifying at least 90 percent of the asteroids near Earth, a feat which they have now accomplished.

"The risk of a really large asteroid impacting the Earth before we could find and warn of it has been substantially reduced," Tim Spahr, the director of the Minor Planet Center at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., said in the release.

Even still Earth did have a relatively close encounter with an asteroid. The Huffington Post reported in June of this year that "2011 MD" flew closer to Earth than the moon. But never fear, NASA is working on a plan to prepare for the day when an asteroid comes hurdling toward Earth. NASA plans to begin asteroid research, using NOAA's underwater laboratory to simulate weightlessness. This research was set to begin this month but got delayed due to stormy seas.

Something should be entering Earth's atmosphere this weekend though. The German Aerospace Center's retired satellite, ROSAT, should be falling back to Earth sometime between Friday and Monday. Much of the minivan-sized ROSAT will burn up during re-entry but up to 30 fragments weighing a total of 1.87 tons could crash into the Earth, center spokesman Andreas Schuetz told The Associated Press.

"All countries around the globe between 53-degrees north and 53-degrees south could possibly be affected," Schuetz said Wednesday - a vast swath of territory that includes much of the earth outside the poles.

But, this satellite won't cause life on Earth to end. We'll have to wait and see what comes Friday regarding Campings prediction.

One last thing…
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