Last year, the world ended – twice in two months, in fact, on September 23 and October 15. Don’t you remember? Oh, it was spectacular: there were earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and even a few nuclear exchanges. It was like a planetwide house party that, as they say, got a little out of control.
The world has been prophesized to be coming to an end since time immemorial, and as you may have noticed, it’s still here. These days, conspiracy theorists or numerologists – those that believe there is a mystical relationship between digits and events – with an Internet connection constantly have a go at guessing our planet’s termination date.
Most of these false apocalypses tend to feature Planet X, sometimes referred to as “Nibiru” – an Akkadian word meaning “crossing” used by pseudohistorians. The most common variant of the tale states that a collision or near-miss with Earth will trigger the end of times. But does this planet actually exist?
NASA is clearly getting a little wound up by the frequency in which Nibiru was being cited as an Earth killer. Last year, amidst the usual nonsense about the end of days, they issued a short, pithy statement that said: “The planet in question, Nibiru, doesn't exist, so there will be no collision.”
The general idea is that this murderous planet is on the edge of our Solar System, or perhaps further out, and it's barreling toward us. If that's true, then why haven't we spotted it yet?
How To Hunt For Planets
Our search for alien worlds has yielded some rather remarkable numbers in recent times. According to the NASA Exoplanet Archive, we’ve discovered 3,717 planets beyond our own Solar System (exoplanets), many of which feature in at least 611 multi-planet systems. There are also nearly 5,000 additional exoplanetary candidates – objects or data spikes we suspect of being exoplanets – currently being analyzed.
We rarely physically observe them, however; we can’t just use an optical telescope to spot them like we can with those in our own Solar System. We detect them mostly indirectly, through a variety of means.
Sometimes they move or “transit” in front of their host star and we see their silhouette. If the light passes through their atmosphere, we can analyze how it was altered to work out what the atmosphere may be like.
Speaking of which, planets also warp the light emanating from these distant stars. Their distortion of the fabric of spacetime means that this light is sometimes focused, as if a cosmic magnifying glass suddenly appeared in the sky. This is a phenomenon known as gravitational microlensing, and this brief blip in apparent brightness tells us that something heavy we can’t otherwise see got in the way of alien starlight.
Proxima b, the likely rocky world in the nearest star system to our own, was detected because its small but not-insignificant tug on its host star, Proxima Centauri, caused the furnace to wobble. Those wobbles cause the starlight's wavelength to change slightly for a moment, or mean that the star can be seen to move in relation to other nearby stars; either way, they reveal a surprising amount about a planet's physical and orbital characteristics.
Around 44 exoplanets, however, have been directly imaged. Although NASA describes it as “trying to find a firefly flitting around a spotlight,” it’s now possible thanks to technology that filters out much of the awesome light from stars, allowing us to spy fuzzy exoplanets hiding in their midst.
Guess what? Planet X has not been spotted by any of these means, neither directly or indirectly. Although exoplanet hunting is in its early days still, this repertoire of techniques would certainly allow us to spot something as big as a planet heading straight for us from the great, dark beyond.
You There, At The Back
Ah, say some: What about Planet Nine – could that be Planet X? No, of course not, but for the uninitiated let’s quickly recap. Planet Nine is a hypothetical planet that may exist within our own Solar System, which doesn’t make it an exoplanet, but rather a regular planet.
To be clear, it’s not Pluto, which is most definitely a dwarf planet because it’s categorically failed to clear its own orbit. As it happens, the discovery of a new dwarf planet, Eris, in 2005 kickstarted the demotion of Pluto, which does neatly highlight that there’s plenty we still haven’t seen in our own cosmic neighborhood.
Planet Nine has simply been inferred to exist by astronomers. Looking at the Kuiper Belt – a collection of comets beyond Pluto’s highly eccentric orbits – it was suggested in 2016 that small perturbations in the motions of these comets betray the existence of a planet, one that’s about 10 times more massive than Earth.
Back then, it was suspected of never getting closer than 200 times the Earth-Sun distance, and that it completes an orbit once every 10-20,000 years. These parameters have been tweaked on and off ever since, and some researchers even suggested a second hypothetical Planet Ten may also exist.
Ignoring the sensible skepticism surrounding these (still worthwhile) claims, why couldn’t one of these be Planet X? If you’re using Roman numerals, then we’re halfway there already!
Here’s the thing. Assuming numerologists are just making it up as they go (they are) and they can’t do anything actual planet hunters can (they can’t), then the problem with Planet X et al. is distance. The reason we are still discovering objects within our own Solar System, despite their not-inconsiderable size, is (partly) because they’re so far away, and they aren’t heading straight for us.
You know all those stories about “near-miss” asteroids that keep harmlessly passing by Earth? Ever wonder how we always know when there's going to be a flyby from a comet? Unsurprisingly enough, NASA and their international equivalents are fairly good (if not perfect) at tracking things coming toward us.
Yes, a few asteroids get missed here and there, but Planet X is supposed to be enormous. As NASA said back in 2012: “If Nibiru or Planet X were real and headed for an encounter with the Earth… astronomers would have been tracking it for at least the past decade, and it would be visible by now to the naked eye.”
That’s the long and short of it. It would be startlingly easy to spot right now, but it’s not, because it’s not there. We haven’t indirectly or directly detected it, nor have we inferred its existence. It’s not another Proxima b or Planet Nine.
It’s an Internet hoax, one that is “periodically recycled into new apocalyptic fables.”
One Last Thing
In case you’re wondering, Planet X is the brainchild of one Nancy Lieder, a Wisconsinite who claims she has the ability to communicate via a neurological implant with aliens from the Zeta Reticuli star system. Apparently, it’s from these aliens that the constantly inaccurate warnings about Planet X stem from. Either they’re playing a prank, they’re terrible at astronomy, or they don’t exist either.
Incidentally, Lieder claims that the Hale-Bopp comet – one of the most viewed astronomical events in human history when it passed by in 1997 – doesn’t exist. So, you know, who knows, really.