We think a wayward comet is the leading culprit in the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But has a comet ever killed anyone? The Tunguska atomic bomb-sized blast in 1908 could have, if the comet had exploded over a city rather than desolate Siberia.
More recently, comet Hale-Bopp can be indirectly blamed for the 1997 mass suicide of 38 members of a New Age religious cult called Heavens Gate. UFO buffs, eager to call any blob of light seen in the heavens a visitor from space, said that a “Saturn-like” alien spaceship was hiding in the tail of the comet.
The Heavens Gate folks thought the UFO was coming to pick them up and take them to a higher plane of existence. Even if I believed that aliens were doing a bus stop at Earth, I wouldn’t think that dying got you to the front of the boarding line — unless Saint Peter is checking you in. What makes this tragedy even more absurd is just the idea that space aliens would “hide” near an object that lots of astronomers on Earth happened to be looking at.
This “spaceship” didn’t exist of course, but was a misinterpretation of a background star in an amateur astronomical photo. The photo was publicized on a conspiracy/UFO radio show. This was bolstered by claims of a so-called remote viewing expert who said he could “visualize” the spacecraft.
This behavior is common in true believers. In 2011, UFO enthusiasts misinterpreted star trails in a photograph of comet Elenin as being two distinct rows of eight smaller circular shaped spaceships from what they reported as “as yet unidentified extraterrestrial civilization.”
“Elenin is fast approaching our sun is under ‘intelligent control’ and heralds a warning to all humanity of a great global catastrophe soon to come,” one UFO site announced.
PHOTOS: Top Doomsday Predictions Gone Bust
Now that Comet ISON is heading for a close encounter with the sun in late November, the Internet is again abuzz with UFO ghost tales, not to mention doomsday theories, mysticism, and miscellaneous strange ideas that go bump in the night.
For starters let’s look at the UFO allegations. A selection of pictures form the Hubble Space Telescope data archive were interpreted by some UFO sleuths as an image of a spaceship, not a diminutive icy nucleus of a primeval body.
Among the online speculation:
In reality the comet is streaked because Hubble wasn’t tracking it in the particular series of five exposures originally posted on a comet blog. The moving comet left a trail in the exposures and appeared to follow an arc due to the fact that Hubble is also moving through space in Earth orbit. Similar trails are commonly seen in other Hubble fixed target observations of background stars where a moving asteroid strays into the field of view and can trace out a “C” or “S” shape on the camera detector.
A comprehensive explanation of this ISON image can be seen below.
In 2011, a number of cosmic disasters were predicted to accompany the appearance of comet Elenin. It supposedly caused earthquakes, shifted Earth’s rotation axis, melted ice on Mars, and triggered a storm on Saturn ( via news.discovery.com ).