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Dr. Coryn Bailer-Jones

Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg

Phone: +49 6221 528-224

Dr. Markus Pössel

Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg

Phone: +49 6221 528-261

Original publication

C. A. L. Bailer-Jones
Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Astronomy

Nemesis is a myth

Max Planck researchers refutes the claim that Earth is periodically hit by asteroids or comets

August 01, 2011

Danger looms from out of space: asteroids and comets are a threat to our planet. The history of Earth has always been punctuated by cosmic catastrophes. Several studies have claimed to have found periodic variations, with the probability of giant impacts increasing and decreasing in a regular pattern. Now a new analysis by Coryn Bailer-Jones from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) shows those simple periodic patterns to be statistical artifacts. His results indicate either that the Earth is as likely to suffer a major impact now as it was in the past, or that there has been a slight increase impact rate events over the past 250 million years
Barringer Crater, also known as Meteor Crater, in Arizona. This crater was formed around 50,000 years ago by the impact of a nickel-iron meteorite. Near the top of the image, the visitors center, complete with tour buses on the parking lot, provides a sense of scale. Zoom Image
Barringer Crater, also known as Meteor Crater, in Arizona. This crater was formed around 50,000 years ago by the impact of a nickel-iron meteorite. Near the top of the image, the visitors center, complete with tour buses on the parking lot, provides a sense of scale. [less]

Giant impacts by comets or asteroids have been linked to several mass extinction events on Earth, most famously to the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Nearly 200 identifiable craters on the Earth's surface, some of them hundreds of kilometers in diameter, bear witness to these catastrophic collisions.

Understanding the way impact rates might have varied over time is not just an academic question. It is an important ingredient when scientists estimate the risk Earth currently faces from catastrophic cosmic impacts.

Since the mid-1980s, a number of authors have claimed to have identified periodic variations in the impact rate. Using crater data, notably the age estimates for the different craters, they derive a regular pattern where, every so-and-so-many million years (values vary between 13 and 50 million years), an era with fewer impacts is followed by an era with increased impact activity, and so on.

The Nördlinger Ries, or Ries, was formed when a meteor hit the area 15 million years ago. The resulting crater, roughly 20 km in diameter, has since been filled in and eroded. In this natural-colour satellite image, it can just be made out as a circular structure, much less clearly defined than the Barringer Crater, which is significantly younger. Zoom Image
The Nördlinger Ries, or Ries, was formed when a meteor hit the area 15 million years ago. The resulting crater, roughly 20 km in diameter, has since been filled in and eroded. In this natural-colour satellite image, it can just be made out as a circular structure, much less clearly defined than the Barringer Crater, which is significantly younger. [less]


One proposed mechanism for these variations is the periodic motion of our Solar System relative to the main plane of the Milky Way Galaxy. This could lead to differences in the way that the minute gravitational influence of nearby stars tugs on the objects in the Oort cloud, a giant repository of comets that forms a shell around the outer Solar System, nearly a light-year away from the Sun, leading to episodes in which more comets than usual leave the Oort cloud to make their way into the inner Solar System – and, potentially, towards a collision with the Earth. A more spectacular proposal posits the existence of an as-yet undetected companion star to the Sun, dubbed “Nemesis”. Its highly elongated orbit, the reasoning goes, would periodically bring Nemesis closer to the Oort cloud, again triggering an increase in the number of comets setting course for Earth.

 

 
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