Comet Hysteria and the Millennium


Comet Hysteria and the Millennium:
A Commentary

By Gary W. Kronk

      Whether you like it or not, there are a lot of gullible people in the world. It is truly amazing what people will believe. But, what's worse, it is upsetting how many people are out there who try and take advantage of those people. Now I am not going to spend my time addressing all the lies people are falling for on an everyday basis, but I would like to address something that particularly bugs me.
      For nearly 30 years I have enjoyed observing comets. I have seen well over 110. My interest in this branch of astronomy is so great that I have also spent a lot of time reading about comets, doing my own research, and even talking to the experts in this field. The result is an increased enjoyment while observing, the publication of two books about comets, and I even give occasional talks on the subject.
      Although my books are basically reference works for other researchers, my own research has brought me into contact with a lot of interesting stories about how people in ancient and medieval times reacted toward comets. These stories are the kind of anecdotal material I like to intersperse throughout my talks when I need to lighten things up a bit. These include the following:

    *The comet of 79 was blamed for the eruption of Vesuvius that led to the destruction of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
    *Halley's Comet of 1066 was hanging in the sky for two months while the English and Normans were planning for an invasion. At the Battle of Hastings a few months later the Normans emerged as victors and from that time on the comet was said to have been a sign that favored William the Conqueror.
    *The comet of 1665 was said to have been responsible for the Black Plague that killed 90 thousand people in London.
    *The appearance of Halley's Comet in 1835 was blamed for several things, including the fall of the Alamo, the destruction of 530 buildings in New York City because of a fire that raged for several days and nights, the massacre of over 280 people in Africa by ten thousand Zulu warriors, and wars that erupted in Cuba, Mexico, Equador, Central America, Peru, Argentina, and Bolivia.

      These stories are basically examples of hindsight, or links that were made by modern people to explain things in the past. Sometimes the dates of historical events can not be perfectly matched to the appearance of a comet so a slightly different way is created to establish blame, such as the following:

    *The appearance of Halley's Comet in 66 was said to have been "a warning" of the fall of Jerusalem in 70.
    *The appearance of Halley's Comet in 1456 was said to have been "a heavenly comment" on the successful 1453 invasion of Constantinople by the Turks.

Once again these are examples of hindsight.

      With the invention of newspapers, the telegraph, and the telephone came an increase in communication between people. Although doomsayers have always existed, this opened up a new avenue for them to pass their word to others. Perhaps the first major test of this came with the appearance of Halley's Comet in 1910.
      A little bit of scientific information in the wrong hands can be dangerous. During the latter half of the 19th century astronomers had developed a tool that enabled them to analyze the light being reflected by comets. One of the first discoveries was that comets reflected sunlight, which makes a lot of sense to us nowadays since we know comets do not emit light, but this did surprise of lot of people. Interestingly, however, bright comets would actually reflect sunlight as it passed through their own dense clouds of dust and gas. This allowed astronomers to begin determining what comets were actually made of. One of the earliest discoveries was that comets contained cyanogen, a very poisonous gas.
      As Halley's Comet approached the sun in 1910, astronomers announced that Earth would actually pass through the tail of this comet during May of that year. They assured everyone that our planet was safe and suggested the possibility of some spectacular sunsets. Meanwhile, the doomsayers latched onto a potential link: if comets contain a poisonous gas and if Earth is going to pass through the comet's tail, then the people of Earth were in serious danger. Numerous newspapers actually published this story. Astronomers countered by saying the material in the tail was so spread out that there could be no ill affects, but few newspapers published this accurate information. Interestingly, a minor panic arose in some cities and entrepreneurs took advantage of it. They sold "comet pills" which were said to counter the effects of the poisonous gas. The pills sold like crazy. On May 20, after Earth had passed through the tail, everyone who had taken the pills was still alive...but, then, so was everyone else.
      Interestingly, comet-caused panics basically vanished during most of the remainder of the 20th century. But during the last few years "end-of-the-world" predictions have become hot topics in supermarket tabloids, the WorldWideWeb, and on radio and television programs. The WorldWideWeb is probably the most to blame where anyone with a computer, with any degree of intelligence, could access the sites and take in as much information as they wish. Why all the interest in these predictions? The following are some of the contributing factors:

    *The end of the Millennium: although the world has passed through numerous 1000-year cycles before, some people are becoming worried about this one, mainly for religious reasons. There are numerous books written about the subject, articles in magazines, and lots of WWW sites which help fuel the fear. Interestingly, research into texts written during the 990s revealed millennium panics were present.
    *Prophecies: For some reason, things said by people who talk in their sleep have always been a source of fascination. This time around, it is the 16th-century prophet Nostradamus. His ambiguous statements have been linked to many historical events through hindsight. Various newly published interpretations indicate that he claims something big would happen around the time of the new millennium.
    *Astronomical Disaster: The 1980s sparked a revelation of sorts for astronomers as they discovered that something big had hit Earth 65 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs. An increased interest by astronomers, geologists, and biologists helped identify several other cataclismic events that caused a large loss of life on our planet. Asteroids or comets have been suggested for some of these events. As the 1990s began new programs were funded that enabled some observatories to start serious, devoted searches for objects that might threaten Earth in the future.
    *Hollywood: Improved computer power was being used to help improve the appearance of movies. This led to a series of movies on both television and the big screen that tried to depict what it would be like for Earth to be hit by a large asteroid or comet.
    *Conspiracy Theories: Ever since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, people have become more suspicious. Unfortunately, some have become more suspicious than others. This has led some people to doubt the validity of investigations into the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother Robert in 1968, and Martin Luther King, also in 1968. There are people who doubt the United States Air Force's report stating that UFOs were not extraterrestrial. And there are people who believe that the multiple missions to the moon were all faked.

      Of course, none of the above would mean anything if it was not for the media. People go to newspapers, radio, and television for news, but the success of papers like the National Enquirer, radio programs like the Art Bell show, and television programs like the Jerry Springer show all indicate that sensationalism sells. Sensationalism has unforturnately taken hold on the WWW and it has been here that pseudoscience has joined up with the above factors to start annoying me.

The "Doomsday Comet" of 1996

      Beginning in 1996 minor forms of comet hysteria reared their ugly head for the first time since 1910. With the discovery of comet Hyakutake and the realization that it would pass close to Earth, some supermarket tabloids reported the comet was actually going to hit Earth--totally ignoring the predictions of astronomers. The due date came and went without a hitch and there was no further discussion.
      Interestingly, one supermarket tabloid, the Weekly World News, published an article on 1996 February 13 that stated the Hubble Space Telescope had found a "doomsday comet." The article said "the famed astronomer Dr. Robert Cremson" had found the comet while examining Hubble images. He said it was the size of Europe and would hit Earth on April 7. First of all, although comets have been photographed by Hubble, no comet has ever been discovered by Hubble. Second, no one by the name of "Robert Cremson" appears in any of the records indicating use of the Hubble Space Telescope. Nor does this name show up in internet searches with respect to astronomy. Interestingly, the Weekly World News refers to this person as "Dr. Crenshaw" around the middle of the same article. Just for the record no "Robert Crenshaw" shows up in Hubble records or in searches dealing with astronomy. Anyway, the two billion people that were expected to die in the impact are still alive and well.

The "Doomsday Comet" of 1997

      Although the year 2000 was still three years away, comet Hale-Bopp caused a more significant form of comet hysteria in 1997. This comet was one of the largest comets ever seen and there were doomsayers who took this as something very significant. There were predictions that the comet would bring the end of the world on April 1, which was the date the comet would be closest to Earth. Although this mention of a "close approach" perked up the ears of the doomsayers, the reality of this was that the comet was over 120 million miles away--further from us than the sun. There was no chance that any particle of this comet was going to reach Earth. Subsequently, there was no end to the world--once again.
      Sadly, there is another aspect to Hale-Bopp's appearance which contributed to the ritual suicide of 39 members of a religious cult on March 26, 1997. An amateur astronomer had taken a photo of the comet during November of 1996 that he claimed showed a UFO following the comet. The "UFO" was actually a star that was present on every photo ever taken of that region. Unfortunately, the mere mention of "UFO" got a lot of people excited and the amateur astronomer became a celibrity on radio and television programs that promoted such things. From this came more misidentified images of the comet and its "UFO", with the "UFO" typically being a misidentified star or a photo defect. The religious cult believed the "UFO" was a spaceship which was coming to take their spirits away. Suicide was the only way to release their spirits in time.
      So, two bright comets, two predictions of doom for our world, and life still continued as normal. In some ways, the doomsayers of 1996 and 1997 were simply carrying out the same tradition as the people of ancient and medieval times. Bright comets capture the imagination. Although comet Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp both reached similar brightnesses, they did so for different reasons. Hyakutake became bright because it passed only ten million miles from Earth, the 33rd closest approach of any comet in history. Had it passed at a distance more typical of comets it would hardly have been noticed. Comet Hale-Bopp became bright because it was huge, certainly among the largest comets ever seen. It remained visible to the naked-eye for nearly a year and a half--nearly twice the previous record. If this comet had passed as close to Earth as comet Hyakutake did its brightness would have approached that of the full moon!
      Bright comets are generally a once-in-a-decade event and with two bright comets having passed, you would think comet hysteria would be an impossibility until after the millennium. But no. Nostradamus prophesied a comet would herald the mass desctruction around the time of the new millennium, so the doomsayers needed a comet. During May of 1998 they got another chance to frighten the gullible.

The "Doomsday Comet" of 1998

      Comet SOHO (official designation C/1998 J1) was discovered on May 3, 1998 by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). This "observatory" is a satellite that orbits the sun just a few million miles from Earth where it continually monitors the sun. On the date of the discovery the comet was barely within the image of a wide-field camera. During the next couple of days it steadily stayed near the northern edge of that camera's field until it finally left. Rough orbits indicated the comet would probably be a bright object for observers in the Southern Hemisphere. It was finally spotted by observers on May 19 after it had sufficiently moved out of twilight. The comet was not as bright as Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp, but it was visible to the naked eye for a couple of weeks.
      This comet became interesting to the doomsayers through the use of conspiracy rumors. An internet group calling themselves "The Millennium Group" was the biggest of the conspiracy sites. Through a misunderstanding of cometary astronomy they actually claimed the comet was bigger than comet Hale-Bopp--a statement that was far from the truth. In reality the comet's maximum brightness never reached the same level as Hale-Bopp and it was as bright as it was because it passed rather close to the sun. It was far below the maximum brightness of Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp by the time it had emerged from twilight. Another stir was caused by a misunderstanding of the discovery images. These images showed the comet near the top of the field, the sun in the center, and a "mysterious Saturn-shaped" object just to the left of the sun. One WWW site actually magnified the object and claimed it was a giant spaceship. In reality, the object was Mars, which was then on the far-side of its orbit on the other side of the sun. The "Saturn" shape was simply an artifact produced by SOHO's electronic camera when it images a bright object. Comet SOHO came and went. Again, there was no disaster.

The "Doomsday Comet" of 1999

      The year 1999 was a big year for the doomsayers. It was the last year before the beginning of the new millennium (if you are one of those who believed it began in 2000 and not 2001). Further reinterpretations of Nostradamus by various individuals indicated this was the year for mass destruction. No bright comets were predicted; however, as 30 or 40 comets are discovered each year, the "doomsday comet" had to be out there somewhere. Right?
      On the night of April 16, 1999, Steven Lee of Australia found a small comet. Calculations revealed the comet would pass closest to the sun on July 11, so that the comet would brighten. Its closest approach to Earth would occur in May at a distance of about 67 million miles--relatively typical for the brighter comets. Somewhat rare, however, was a second close approach on September 29, at the greater distance of about 77 million miles. Sadly, after having naked-eye comets in 1996, 1997, and 1998, comet Lee was too small and too far away for it to become a naked-eye object. However, a potential millennium disaster was at stake, as well as the prophecy of Nostradamus.
      Enter "The Millennium Group" once again! This time they published a rather wild scenario on their web site that indicated comet Lee could still hit Earth. They claimed that, while the comet was behind the sun during July, it was possible for a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) to hit the comet and divert pieces to a collision course with Earth. First of all, CME's can not be predicted. Second, if a CME did occur, it is unlikely for it to reach comet Lee's closest distance from the sun of 66 million miles with enough force to blow the comet to pieces. Third, comets have been observed to split in the past and the pieces generally stay close to the comet because of something simple called momentum. If a CME did hit the comet with a force great enough to split it, the pieces could not be diverted enough to hit Earth. At best they would drift a few thousand miles from the comet, not 77 million miles.
      Comet Lee was also the focus of Nostradamus scholars, who claimed the comet contained a "hidden cometary, asteroid, or meteor fragment in its tail." They said Nostradamus indicated when the comet would hit Earth, but the various sites tended to disagree in their interpretation. Some tried to be smart about the whole thing by stating Nostradamus' indication of the 7th month of the disaster was ambiguous because no one knew which calendar he was using. So, depending on this interpretation, some sites said July, some said September, and some admitted they were unsure and said July or September. Interestingly, a couple of sites apparently copied from the other sites and just blatantly said the comet would strike sometime between July and September. By the end of September there was no sign of a collision. Comet Lee was still exactly where it was supposed to be in the sky and it was then moving away from both the sun and Earth.
      Interestingly, the Associated Press distributed an article with a dateline of August 18 that said a 47-year-old man who worked on space shuttle data processing was found in a cave in southeastern Ohio on August 10. Also located within the cave was camping equipment and food. The man told authorities that a meteor was going to hit in the Atlantic Ocean causing a 200 foot tidal wave that would wipe out the east coast. The man was kept in jail overnight and was then sent on his way.

Another Threat in 1999

      But the millennium was not over and neither was the task of the doomsayers. Richard Hoagland and Art Bell, each of whom makes a living by keeping the rumors of UFOs and conspiracies alive, both claimed film footage of the August 11 solar eclipse over Europe showed two unknown objects near the sun. Their "analysis" of these objects indicated they were quite close to the orbit of the Taurid meteor stream. So close, in fact, that Hoagland suggested they were probably part of the stream and of a size that could be disasterous for our planet.
      There was one major problem with their scenario. Although some objects do become visible during total solar eclipses (stars and planets, for instance), it still takes a fairly bright object to be seen at this time. In addition, an object sitting in the Taurid meteor stream at the position indicated on that date would have been located about 120 million miles from Earth. So, if Hoagland and Bell were reporting that objects dangerous to our planet were seen during the August 11 eclipse, how did these objects avoid detection in the past as they moved through the night sky? There is definitely one large object that is moving in the Taurid stream orbit and that is the periodic comet Encke, which is believed to be the parent of the Taurids. Discovered back in 1786, this comet circles the sun once every 3.3 years. It has on several occasions become visible to the naked eye, but never at a distance of 120 million miles from our planet. So, the Hoagland/Bell objects must be larger and brighter than Encke! If these objects were in the Taurid orbit they would move through the inner solar system in a fashion quite similar to that of comet Encke; therefore, they would have the potential of becoming incredibly bright and would have easily been detected in the past.
      Interestingly, of the thousands of images and video footage shot during the eclipse, nothing else showed anything unusual. Thus, it seems probable that these "doomsday" objects were probably just specks of dust on someone's lens.

"Doomsday Comet" of 2000

      So, with the new millennium beginning on January 1, 2000, would the appearance of a comet in 2000 be fair game for the doomsayers? After 1999 passed without a hitch, you would think many of these people would be out of a job. Some of the doomsayers have made a good living taking advantage of others and this whole millennium thing worked out quite well for them. They were published in magazines, appeared on talk shows, and even written books. But, these doomsayers tend to be pretty bright people and it did not take long for them to realize what scientists have been trying to tell everyone for several years--the new millennium would not begin until January 1, 2001. Why? Well, there was no year zero and since each millennium has a duration of 1000 years, then the first millennium ran from the year 1 through the year 1000, and the second millennium logically runs from 1001 through 2000. The third millennium would not begin until 2001. Therefore, the doomsayers had another year to frighten people!
      So would the tabloids, radio programs, and internet sites that breed the conspiracy theories and doomsday predictions have a comet to scare people with in the year 2000? Well, as 2000 began there was the potential for two barely naked-eye comets during the last half of the year. But the doomsayers, were getting smart. Afterall, once these comets were gone, the potential fear would subside. What they came up with was a wild theory. The small, relatively obscure comet West-Kohoutek-Ikemura, which makes one revolution around the sun every 6.4 years, was going to pass close to Mars sometime during late May or early June of 2000. Their "computations" indicated the close approach would be on the order of only 40,000 miles, which they said was close enough for the comet to either be pulled into Mars, resulting in a catastrophic blast of "millions of tons of material" from Mars, or to yank one or both moons of Mars out of orbit. They continued by noting that either the material or the moons would be put on a collision course with Earth.
      In a day when astronomers can pinpoint the return of a well-known periodic comet to within a few minutes or hours, how could a group of "scientists" making up The Millennium Group not be able to pinpoint a potential collision of a comet with a planet? How did well-known astronomers predict the close approach of the comet with Mars?

  • Kenji Muraoka (Japan) indicated the closest approach occurred on June 5, with the minimum distance of 0.04215 AU, which is equal to 3,914,000 miles or 6,303,000 kilometers.
  • Kazuo Kinoshita (Japan) indicated the close approach would occur on June 5, with the minimum distance of 0.0425 AU, which is equal to 3,946,890 miles or 6,355,700 kilometers.
  • Patrick Rocher (France) indicated the smallest distance between the comet and Mars will occur on June 5, with the minimum distance of 0.04251 AU, which is equal to 3,948,000 miles or 6,357,000 kilometers.
      Thus, three well-known astronomers respected for the accuracy of their orbital computations had already provided similar orbits indicating a close approach slightly greater than 3.9 million miles (6.3 million kilometers). Although this comet had been bright enough for large amateur telescopes to see in the past, the return in 2000 was not observable as the comet was pretty much on the other side of the sun from Earth when at its brightest. By the time the comet was far enough from the sun to be in range of large telescopes it was too faint to be detected. Therefore, this was a clever idea on the part of The Millennium Group as the fear just kept going. Of course no pieces ever hit Earth. It is sad that people seem to have short memories and were believing this internet group once again. There was no chance of a collision. There was no chance of pieces of Mars hitting us. Just a close approach of a comet and Mars.

Will there be a Doomsday Comet in the future?

Possibly. Since the beginning of the 1980s scientists have continued to uncover evidence that Earth and especially life have been reshaped by impacts of comets and asteroids in the past. That is one of the reasons why several telescopes are now dedicated to finding potentially hazardous objects moving through our solar system. If we can find these objects far enough ahead of time, maybe we can alter their courses to prevent us from following the destiny of the dinosaurs.

Conclusion

During the last few centuries astronomers have managed to lift the cloak of mystery surrounding comets. We now know what they are, how they move, and where they come from. Although there is evidence that a comet hits Earth every few million years or so, there is a growing number of scientists that also believe comets played a major role in the early development of life on our planet. It would seem that the numerous early collisions of comets with a very young Earth probably provided most of the water now present on our planet--water, of course, being perhaps the single most important ingredient for sustaining life.
Comets are just another of nature's spectacles. Like the beauty of a sunset or a rainbow. All are unexpected, but none should be feared. Our world and our universe are filled with numerous mysteries just waiting to be solved. Fear will not enable us to learn about them, but calmly observing and studying them will.