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Nibiru: The Nonexistent Planet

Linked to the close of the Mayan calendar, a variety of rumors have spread regarding ways the world could end in 2012. One popular contender is Nibiru, a supposed planet that some claim will collide with Earth at the end of the year. But despite the buzz, there is no scientific evidence supporting the alleged planet's existence. [VIDEO: 12-21-2012 - Just Another Day]

Nibiru has been linked to NASA by various bloggers, and is also sometimes referred to or confused with Planet X, another supposed world for which there is no evidence.

Because of the Nibiru NASA connection that’s been claimed, the space agency put out a statement to say there is no Nibiru or Planet X coming to destroy Earth in 2012. What follows below is the true science and history of these supposed rogue planets, with reference to a real object, Comet Elenin, that somehow got mixed up in the whole mess.

Planet Nibiru, or Planet X
Artist's conception of the rogue planet Nibiru, or Planet X.
Credit: gilderm | sxc.hu

The origins of the Nibiru myth

The story began in 1976, when Zecharia Sitchin wrote "The Twelfth Planet," a book which used Stitchin's own unique translation of Sumerian cuneiform to identify a planet, Nibiru, orbiting the sun every 3,600 years. Several years later, Nancy Lieder, a self-described psychic, announced that the aliens she claimed to channel had warned her this planet would collide with Earth in 2003. After a collision-free year, the date was moved back to 2012, where it was linked to the close of the Mayan long-count period. [VIDEO: End of Days in 2012? NASA Scientist Says No]

When Comet Elenin appeared in 2011, many were concerned that it was the mysterious planet in disguise, despite the fact that planets and comets both appear different under a telescope (a comet has a gas atmosphere [coma] and a tail, while a planet does not). 

Skywatcher Michael Mattiazzo got this image of comet Elenin, September 1, 2011, in the southern hemisphere.
Skywatcher Michael Mattiazzo got this image of comet Elenin, September 1, 2011, in the southern hemisphere.
Credit: Michael Mattiazzo

But instead of slamming into the Earth, the comet strayed too close to the sun and broke into pieces. The leftover fragments continued on their path to the outer solar system for the next 12,000 years, still bits of comet and not a more cohesive planet.

Evidence for Nibiru?

Proponents of the fictitious planet note that, in 1984, a scientific paper was published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters which discussed several infrared sources with "no counterparts" that turned up in a survey of the sky. Such surveys are common in astronomy, and usually involve follow-ups that individually detail the more interesting sources. In the follow-up of the 1984 survey, most of the sources turned out to be distant galaxies. None were identified as planets. Both papers are available to the public.

A planet with an orbit so eccentric that it took 3,600 years to orbit the sun would create instabilities inside of the 4.5 billion year old solar system. After only a few trips, its gravity would have significantly disrupted the other planets, while feeling a responding push from those planets that would have changed its orbit significantly.

The easiest and most verifiable piece of evidence arguing against the existence of the theoretical planet can be performed by anyone - according to the information available, a planet with a 3,600 orbit that is due to impact Earth in 2012 should be available to the naked eye. Easily-performed calculations show that by April 2012, it would be brighter than the faintest stars viewed from a city, and almost as bright as Mars at its dimmest. This would make it visible to astronomers everywhere.

The most common rebuttal to this is the cry of conspiracy theory. However, there are hundreds of thousands of amateur astronomers around the world, each with their own telescope. On top of that, most of the thousands of professional astronomers are linked, not to the government, but to private universities.

David Morrison, the Senior Scientist of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, pointed out that "NASA and the government get most of their information from these outside astronomers, not the other way around."

Between the amateur and professional astronomers, there are plenty of people who would have noticed a new star in the sky.

Nothing to fear

Doomsday reports across the internet frequently incite fear, but it's interesting to note they are nothing new. People have been decrying the end of the world for hundreds of years, to no avail.

Rumors spread like wildfire on the internet, but the same technology can make it easier than ever to delve into the scientific evidence about such events.

— Nola Taylor Redd

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