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Comet Almost Hit Earth? Some Astronomers Think Comet Was Seen Breaking Up In 1883

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On April 18th, the Hubble Space Telescope recorded this sharp view of prolific Fragment B, itself trailing dozens of smaller pieces, each with its own cometary coma and tail. The picture spans over 3,000 kilometers at the comet's April 18 distance of 32 million kilometers from planet Earth. With its brightest fragment presently too faint to be seen with the naked eye, comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 will pass closest to Earth on May 13 at a distance of about 11 million kilometers. | NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (JHU / APL), M. Mutchler and Z. Levay (STScI)

Scientists at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) think what was once considered a historic observation of a UFO might have actually been a comet passing in front of the sun, just a few hundred miles from Earth.

Many people are a little skeptical, to say the least.

José Bonilla observed an astounding 447 objects over the course of 3.5 hours on two different days in 1883. These were long considered to be a fluke -- either birds, insects, or dust passing in front of his lens, according to MIT's Technology Review. A French journal called L'Astronomie published his findings in 1886, and since then some have taken this to be evidence of a UFO.

But a new study proposes that Bonilla's findings were something a bit more terrifying: A comet breaking up into pieces just 600 km and 8000 km (373 mi and 4,971 mi) from Earth. The report, "Interpretation of the observations made in 1883 in Zacatecas (Mexico): A fragmented Comet that nearly hits the Earth," comes in the wake of the 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 comet (pictured above) which scientists observed breaking up in 2006.

Critics, like Discover Magazine, find it particularly odd that such a large event happening so close to Earth was only observed by one observatory. However, Technology Review has an explanation:

That can be explained using parallax. If the fragments were close to Earth, parallax would have ensured that they would not have been in line with the Sun even for observers nearby. And since Mexico is at the same latitude as the Sahara, northern India and south-east Asia, it's not hard to imagine that nobody else was looking.

The paper itself also provides some explanation and even suggests that it may have been the Pons-Brooks comet observed by American astronomers the same year. However, there seem to be a number of holes in the theory, stretching beyond the holes in individual observation.

From Discover:

Worse than that, there were no meteor showers reported that day or night. Comets are basically giant snowballs peppered with dust and gravel. Every time they get near the Sun, some of that ice sublimates (turns from a solid into a gas), forming the fuzzy ball we associate with comets, but also releasing some of the embedded rocky material. When the Earth passes through this stuff, we get meteor showers as it burns up in our atmosphere.

Whether or not the new analysis is accurate is debatable, but perhaps the biggest proof to the contrary is that the planet didn't bear witness to a meteor shower of "biblical proportions" that night. This is especially true because even the study attributes the haziness of the objects to matter coming off them, as would be expected with a comet breaking up in space.

Even for the many who aren't sold on this one, it's pretty scary to consider the possibility. Take a look at the study, and tell us what you think in the poll below.

Quick Poll

Do you think Banillo observed a comet close to Earth?

I think it could have been a comet.

It was probably birds or something like that.


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