From the Boston
Is there a planet X that will cause global catastrophe next May?
By Phil Plait, Globe Correspondent, 11/5/2002
When the e-mail came, I had been expecting it for weeks.
The e-mail's author said her brother had heard that a rogue planet
called ''Planet X'' was going to pass by the Earth in May of 2003.
When it did, it would cause massive damage: floods, volcanoes, death
on a global scale. Her brother was so worried that he was planning on
putting his house in coastal Maine up for sale. He didn't want to be
anywhere near the ocean come May, when the Earth's axis shifted due
to the gravity of Planet X.
Sighing, I composed a reply. There was nothing to fear, I wrote.
Planet X is just another in a long line of mythical astronomical
death sentences that somehow always fail to materialize. The month of
May will come and go next year, I wrote, just as it always has, and
Planet X will be relegated to the junk pile along with countless
other breathlessly prophesized deadlines.
That was the first Planet X e-mail I received, but I've answered
dozens more since. It's part of my job. I'm an astronomer.
Years ago I was training as a scientist, well on my way to becoming a
rank-and-file researcher with a middling-to-fair career. But over
time I realized that a lot of people had some pretty basic
misconceptions about astronomy. I started to write about them,
putting them up on my Web site.
That was in 1993. The Web was hardly anything back then, so my
writing wasn't exactly tearing up the scene. I started reviewing the
astronomy in TV, movies, and the public consciousness. By 1998, the
site had grown to several hundred pages, and I figured it was time to
make it official: I registered the domain name www.badastronomy.com.
Light-heartedly disabusing people of myths and misconceptions is one
thing, but in 1997, things changed. In that year the Heaven's Gate
cult members, awaiting alien visitors, willingly drank phenobarbital
and vodka, ''shed their containers,'' and died. Their deaths were
indirectly accelerated by the actions of a man who had taken
some images of comet Hale-Bopp through his telescope, and he thought
he saw some sort of mysterious object trailing the comet. He reported
it on a well-known pseudoscience radio show, and the Web buzzed with
the gossip. In reality, his object was just a star that was
over-exposed in his image, as many people tried to tell him.
But it was too late for the 39 members of Heaven's Gate, who imagined
a spaceship was following the comet. In a very real sense, bad
astronomy killed them.
There are all manners of people twisting science for their own ends.
Some are certainly sincere, if misguided: They usually just don't
know science well enough to understand where they have gone wrong.
Others are paranoid, seeing NASA conspiracies behind every astronomy
headline. Still others are hucksters, knowing full well that they are
peddling snake oil and hoping to cash in before someone gets on their
An excellent example of this is the whole Planet X story.
In a nutshell, according to the theory, Planet X is a hitherto-
unknown planet in our solar system. It orbits the sun on a leisurely
path, taking it into the inner regions of the solar system every
3,600 years or so. The last time it ventured near the Earth,its
passage was noted by the Sumerians in their writings, and there were,
well, biblical disasters: fire from the sky, upheavals on the sun,
earthquakes and much more.
Hang on: The 3,600 years are almost up, and like an unwelcome
relative, it's due for another visit. According to the theory, Planet
X will pass close enough next May to wreak havoc upon the Earth. NASA
knows all about it but doesn't want people to panic. So they've
covered up the whole thing.
The idea of a rogue planet was first spotlighted by Zecharia Sitchin,
a self-proclaimed scholar of ancient writings. When he claims that
Sumerian text talks of aliens from Planet X visiting Earth and mating
with humans, I have little doubt he is serious. I also have little
doubt he is wrong.
Still, while Sitchin may have originated the idea of Planet X, he is
by no means its loudest supporter. That honor goes to Nancy Lieder,
an ex-computer consultant in San Bruno, Calif., who has been talking
about Planet X since at least 1995. Although she pays homage to
Sitchin, her self-confessed main source of information on Planet X is
her telepathic communication with aliens. Yes, you read that
Amazingly, even with this outrageous claim, she has quite a
following. She has a Web site, a book, a video, and several Web chat
rooms. Over the years she has made many public predictions, including
one that claims the passing of Planet X will kill 90 percent of the
humans on Earth.
I wouldn't worry, her track record isn't exactly stellar. In fact,
she's usually completely wrong.
For example, Lieder, informed by her aliens, gave specific celestial
coordinates at which people could find Planet X. Subsequent
observations yielded an empty patch of sky instead of her marauding
Unfortunately, Lieder is not alone. Mark Hazlewood, currently making
the rounds on the Internet, has recently published a book in which he
details the Earth's coming destruction. Planet X, he says, is in
reality a brown dwarf, a sort of failed star. Glowing a dull red, it
will pass the Earth in May, causing, well, you know the drill by now.
Modern science has an excellent grasp of how planets orbit the sun,
and so the current position of Planet X, if it exists, can be
calculated. I did this math myself and found that to be here by May
2003, Planet X would be close enough to be one of the brightest
objects in the sky. In fact, it would have been obvious in our
skies for decades. Yet, not a single person has seen it.
NASA may be a pretty good operation, but I doubt it could hide an
Still, the people who follow Lieder and Hazlewood turn a blind eye to
their abysmal failures, saying that government disinformation agents
are trying to muddy the issue. They've even accused me of being a
spook, a well-paid agent of NASA sent to sow confusion and
disinformation. (Note to NASA: I want a raise.)
Hazlewood and the others have made these accusations without the
benefit of any evidence whatsoever, of course, but just making the
claim is enough for their followers to believe it.
I am the one amply supporting my claims. I have math and science on
my side. The Planet X crowd are spinning fantasies literally out of
the vacuum of space.
Of course, the only way to know for sure is to wait until May. And
then, when the heavens and Earth turn as they usually do and Planet X
is yet another no-show, will the purveyors of this bit of fuzzy
thinking evaporate along with their imaginary planet?
I know better. I've seen this before. They may dry up and blow away,
but only temporarily, until they dream up some new heavenly chimera
to fret about.
And when they do, I'll still be here. There's always more room on my
Phil Plait is an astronomer at Sonoma State University and the Web
master of Bad Astronomy (www.badastronomy.com). He is also the author
of ''Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from
Astrology to the Moon Landing `Hoax.'''