ORIGINALLY POSTED MAY 30, 2012
So, let’s put this right out front: I’m not a scientist. Not an astronomer, not a physicist, not a cosmologist, not even a boring old chemist. What’s worse is that I’ve historically been pretty bad at math! Oh, I’ve gotten better over the years through a concerted effort to do so, but I’m certainly not going to be mistaken for… well, even a competent high school senior!
And while I’m not a scientist per se, I am VERY, VERY into science. I read a TON of stuff, much of it WAY over my head, but I read it anyway. I usually get lost in the math pretty quick but the conceptual descriptions I’m quite good at grasping. I’ve on a couple of occasions had a chance to talk to some actual, real scientists and they’ve come away fairly impressed by my ability to carry on an intelligent conversation even given my lack of understanding the details where the math is necessary.
I’m what you’d call an amateur scientist I suppose. I’ve built my own Tesla coil, I’ve built my own CO2 LASER and I can converse about quite a few high-concept science topics without sounding like a complete and total buffoon. Just a partial one 🙂
That all being said, those that follow me on Twitter know that I occasionally like to throw out a series of tweets were I have some fun with math to try and figure out some weird stuff… like how many hard drives you’d need to store enough information about an average human body to be able to build a Star Trek transporter… or how long it would take you to walk to the moon if we could build a bridge to it… or how many planets in the galaxy are likely to have intelligent life on them… and so on.
Today I saw some posts about Mayan predictions and how there was a planet out there, lurking, ready to take us out. I’d certainly heard all that before, nothing new, but it occurred to me: shouldn’t it be possible, with some math, to prove once and for all whether this was even possible? Hmm, worth a shot!
First, some facts we’ll need to try and pull this off… you’ll be scratching your head initially wondering how any of this matter, but trust me, it does:
- The Earth moves around the sun at about 62,000 mph
- The moon is about 2,200 miles in diameter
- The diameter of the Earth is about 8,000 miles at the equator
- The moon is about 239,000 miles away from the Earth, on average
- There are 204 days until 12/21/2012, or 4,896 hours (as of this writing obviously!)
For the sake of this thought experiment, let’s assume that Planet X is the exact same size as the moon and that it’s moving at the same speed as the Earth, because, well, we need SOME size and speed here and those seems as good a guess as any other.
That means that by 12/21/2012, Planet X will move a total of 303,552,000 miles (4,896 * 62,000).
Now, if we trust that the Mayans are correct and that 12/21/2012 is, in fact, the correct day of our demise than we know that Planet X must currently be 303,552,000 miles away because any closer it’d get here before the appointed doomsday, making all our preparations turn to poo, and any further and we’d be in the embarrassing situation of the Mayans being a bit… umm… premature 😉
Since planning for the end of the world seems to me to be something we should be fairly accurate about, we’ll assume those figures are right.
So, there’s something else we can now calculate: the apparent size of Planet X as seen from Earth. Now, this is of course where math starts to get in my way a bit, but I THINK I’ve got this right: if we divide the total distance Planet X will cover (303,552,000) by the average distance of the moon (239,000) we get 1,270. That’s how much further away Planet X currently is than the moon. That means that the apparent size of Planet X will also be 1,270 times smaller than the moon appears. Remember the moon is 2,200 miles in diameter, so if we divide that by 1,270 we find the answer being 1.73.
In other words, Planet X should appear in our sky at about the same size as an object 1.73 miles in diameter at the same distance as the moon.
At least, I THINK that’s right 🙂
Now, assuming for the moment I got that all right, what it tells me is that we likely would have noticed such a thing. While I agree that 1.73 miles in diameter isn’t very much, I think even with the naked eye you can approach that sort of resolution when looking at the moon itself. The surface features we can see with no binoculars or instruments probably isn’t too much more than that (well, not MY eyes, because they suck, but young whipper-snappers with youthful eyes!) Certainly with binoculars you can see that sort of detail and with telescopes you obviously can.
Now, this all leaves out one very important detail of course, and that’s reflected light. As everyone reading SHOULD know, assuming you paid ANY attention at ALL in school, the moon does not emit light, it reflects sunlight. The same is true of everybody in our solar system except for the Sun itself. So, it would be true of Planet X (putting aside the possibility of an alien civilization riding in on it that has cities ablaze with artificial lighting of course). So, the question would be if Planet X would now be reflecting enough sunlight to be visible to us on Earth.
Well, let’s see: 303,552,000 (which I’ll just round up to 304 from now on because my fingers are getting tired!) is roughly midway between Mars and Jupiter. Obviously, we can see both of those objects, but they’re also quite a bit bigger than Planet X in our thought experiment (Jupiter, of course, dwarfs it, but Mars, while bigger, isn’t as big a difference) and so reflect more sunlight.
Hey, guess what’s out there between Mars and Jupiter? The asteroid belt! Now, the belt ENDS roughly half-way between the two, so it ends roughly where Planet X would be now. But, the bottom line is we certainly can see asteroids from Earth, albeit not with the naked eye and not even particularly easily with telescopes and whatnot. But we CAN. And remember, with Planet X we’re talking about an object MUCH larger than any asteroid we’ve ever seen.
So, the bottom line is that I think we COULD see Planet X right now, but not with the naked eye, and it would probably take a bit of luck to spot it with telescopes since we don’t know precisely where in the sky we should look.
I think ultimately what this means is that the Mayans COULD be right, and we COULD all be looking down the barrel of a shotgun that’s going to go off on 12/21/2012, but it’ll probably be another 2-3 months before we can look up in the sky and know with our naked eyes.
Hey, whattaya know? Just in time for the kids to go back to school! “Ok class, today we’ll be learning about how we’re all about to get hit on the head by a giant space rock… but don’t worry, duck-and-cover still works!”