'Mayan Apocalypse' FAQ: NASA Answers Your Burning Doomsday Questions

on December 20 2012 11:20 AM
impact
NASA keeps tabs on all near-earth objects, and their calculations say a civilization-ending impact from space -- like this artist's impression -- is rather unlikely over the next several hundred years. NASA/Don Davis

As December 21 looms – and in fact, has already arrived without incident in places like New Zealand and Australia – people are still bombarding NASA with questions about a supposed apocalypse predicted by a nonexistent Maya prophecy.

The space agency's “Ask an Astrobiologist” feature, usually home to questions about possible life on other planets, has been dominated by queries about planet-wide blackouts and mysterious rogue planets in recent weeks.

David Morrison, the astrobiologist that runs the question-and-answer page, has already received more than 5,000 questions about a possible doomsday in 2012, and has posted more than 400 answers to people fearing asteroids, planetary alignments, and other mysterious celestial world-ending events.

"I don't know why they write to NASA at all," Morrison told The Awl in September. "Probably because there's nowhere else to write."

Many of the questions Morrison has answered involve the fictional planet Nibiru, which was supposedly discovered by ancient Sumerians. Fiction writers and self-proclaimed psychics have warned that Nibiru is returning and will smash into the Earth.

Both Morrison and NASA, on a page devoted to debunking apocalypse claims, point out that not only have astronomers failed to pick up signs of a rogue planet heading our way, if such a planet was going to collide with the Earth on Friday, it should be very visible in the sky by now.

Other fears that people have written to Morrison involve planetary alignments which, according to your conspiracy theory of choice, will somehow reverse the rotation of the Earth, reverse the magnetic poles of the Earth, or suck us all into a black hole or alternate dimension.

It is patently impossible to reverse the rotation of the Earth, Morrison says. And while magnetic reversals have occurred in the history of the Earth, about once every 400,000 years, there's no evidence that such an event harms any life on Earth, and the phenomenon is unlikely to occur in the next several thousand years.

Plus, “there are no planetary alignments in the next few decades and even if these alignments were to occur, their effects on the Earth would be negligible,” NASA says. “One major alignment occurred in 1962, for example, and two others happened during 1982 and 2000.”

Other New Age types have latched onto the fact that the Earth and the sun will be aligned with the center of our Milky Way galaxy this month. But this happens every December, so there's no reason to expect that this year will be any different from the last several million or so years.

NASA isn't the only government agency trying to patiently explain why the world won't end, with limited success. In China, the government has cracked down on what they're calling “the end of the world rumor,” going so far as to stop religious groups from preaching doomsday messages. Meanwhile, a Reuters poll shows that a fifth of Chinese people surveyed agreed that the Maya calendar predicts the end of the world.

“Chinese officials have called for calm, but the problem is that the people don’t believe them,” Lily Kuo writes for Quartz. “From the cover up of a SARS outbreak to sales of toxic milk formula, the Chinese government doesn’t have a good track record of transparency.”

Meanwhile, in Russia, President Vladimir Putin addressed doomsday fears in a press conference on Thursday.

"I know when the end of the world will come," Putin said, taking a moment for a dramatic pause, according to Agence France-Presse. "It will be in 4.5 billion years approximately. As far as I remember, it is the system of the functioning of our sun."