Comet Elenin Self-Destructs

Whenever astronomers discover a comet headed inbound toward a close encounter the Sun, there's always buzz among observers about how bright it might get. That was certainly the case last December, when Comet Elenin (C/2010 X1) made its debut. Many hoped it would become easily visible to the unaided eye as it rounded perihelion nine months later.

By April, that initial enthusiasm had waned a bit, as it became clear that Comet Elenin was small and intrinsically faint.

The keys to its peak visibility were the closeness it would eventually have to the Sun on September 10th (0.48 astronomical unit, about 45 million miles) and to Earth in mid-October (0.23 a.u.). In fact, amateur observations through July and early August suggested that this interloper might even be ahead of schedule, brightness-wise. The hearts of comet observers everywhere raced a little faster.

Comet Elenin in decline
Here's how Comet Elenin (C/2010 X1) looked on the evening of August 27, 2011. Observing from Chatelaine in southeast Australia, Michael Mattiazzo combined 15 10-second exposures taken through an 11-inch telescope. The edge-on 13th-magnitude galaxy NGC 4348 is at lower right.
Michael Mattiazzo
Now all bets are off. Within the past week the comet's brightness has declined by 50%, dropping a half magnitude between August 19th and 20th, according to Australian observer Michael Mattiazzo. (The comet's current location in western Virgo makes it virtually unobservable from northern latitudes.)

Worse, images show Comet Elenin's bright core becoming elongated and diffuse — the telltale signs that its icy nucleus has either broken in two or disintegrated altogether.

One veteran comet-watcher who's not surprised is John Bortle. Four months ago, based on Elenin's performance to that point, he cautioned, "The comet may be intrinsically a bit too faint to even survive perihelion passage." And his words have proved prescient, as the fading continues (estimates are near 9th magnitude) and there's speculation that this object or its remnants might not be around much longer.

I guess all those pseudoscientific bloggers who predicted planet-altering encounters with a cosmic visitor bright enough to be seen in broad daylight will just have to find something else to worry about.

34 thoughts on “Comet Elenin Self-Destructs

  1. Rasmussen

    Just seen this article and find it odd that NASA’s JPL is still tracking it by it’s gravity and noticed its creating more as it gets closer. So it is is in fact self destructed, then what is creating the gravitational pull that can still be detected right now by JPL? Just wondering from a scientific point of view.

  2. Richimon

    If Elenin has broken apart, do we not stand a good chance of an incredible
    Comet Elenin meteor storm because the smaller pieces will be effected differently by the sun’s gravity differently than the whole body, slowing the broken leftovers enough to have them rain down on the planet as we cross Elenin’s original orbit. It seemed pretty certain that a comet racing past the sun at a speed it had never before achieved (or at least not in the past 6 or 7 thousand years) would be fragile enough to be unable to stand its hard right turn around the sun.

  3. Jon Hanford

    "If Elenin has broken apart, do we not stand a good chance of an incredible Comet Elenin meteor storm….?"

    Unfortunately Richimon, the prospects for a meteor shower from Elenin debris in the coming months are not very good:

    Notice at this link at the BAUT forum the freeware "Gravity Simulator" was used for these predictions and a link to "GS" is provided. This way you can used published ephemeride data on Comet Elenin to check his computations for accuracy.

    It looks as if very little if any material from the comet’s breakup will be traveling fast enough to intercept the Earth, inbound anyways.

  4. John Parsons

    I don’t know where you get this (icy nucleus). None of the 4 comets investigated/impacted had such. Just another example of ignoring evidence to support an unsupported theory. You may wish to check your facts (or lack thereof) before writing for Sky and Telescope.

  5. Tiffany

    You know it’s so funny that the closer this thing gets, the more people are trying to dissuade everyone from worrying about it. I mean, if it has just "self-destructed", I guess all the money spent on the bunkers, FEMA drills and stored food has gone to waste, huh? Sorry, but I call b.s.

  6. Tony Flanders

    Just to clarify a few things: First, the material from Comet Elenin willcontinue to orbit the Sun, though it will be too dispersed to appear bright. Second, JPL may or may not be tracking the comet, but the websites referred to contain predictions, not observations, and they are not always updated regularly. Third, spacecraft analysis of comets confirms what we’ve known for a long time: that they’re largely composed of water ice, together with a huge variety of other materials. And finally, as all educated and open-mindeed people are well aware, there was never any scientific basis whatsoever for all the doom-mongers. I will be happy to bet any amount of money at even odds that no astronomical catastrophe will happen in the next two years. — Tony Flanders, Associate Editor, Sky & Telescope

  7. cbiggs

    I’ll take that a step further and bet any amout of money at any odds that a civilization ending asteroid/comet will not hit the earth in the next 20 years.

    If I win, I get the cash in 20years.

    If you win, I pay you the day after the asteroid hits.

    Any takers?

  8. Michael C. Emmert

    Hi, Tony, I don’t know how long you’ve been working for (or reading) S&T, but I was wondering if any other story has had as many bizarre, disjointed, hard-to-read, meandering, off-topic, antiscientific, just plain weird posts as this one? Why Elenin?

    Boy, this is really strange.

  9. Roy Roy

    I would imagine that the coming year 2012 has a lot of doom sayers looking for any sign that could lead to our demise. Comets have always been one of the many scenarios that would fit the plot of our predicted end……..

  10. Rich

    There seems to be a cottage industry these days in doom and destruction. I think it dovetails with the economic and political climate as much as anything. This comet NEVER was a likely candidate for fame- there was a slight possibility it might become momentarily bright due to forward scattering near perihelion, but that would have been observed only from the SOHO or STEREO spacecraft. Pan-STARRS in 2013 will likely be the next web sensation, if people emerge from their shelters after next year’s Mayan catastrophe doesn’t happen.

  11. Rich

    There seems to be a cottage industry these days in doom and destruction. I think it dovetails with the economic and political climate as much as anything. This comet NEVER was a likely candidate for fame- there was a slight possibility it might become momentarily bright due to forward scattering near perihelion, but that would have been observed only from the SOHO or STEREO spacecraft. Pan-STARRS in 2013 will likely be the next web sensation, if people emerge from their shelters after next year’s Mayan catastrophe doesn’t happen.

  12. Jeff G

    Who knows why conspiracy theorists do what they do? Mass hysteria? A need to feel superior? I vote for a subtle mental illness. As a tried and true Scientific Skeptic, I know science delivers the goods. Nothing else in the history of mankind has ever been as productive and beneficial as science..

    There is pseudo science everywhere. Post modernist Orpah/Dr Oz following sheeple who due to a lack of science education are prone to believing everything and anything pop culture and blogs throw at them. However my guess is S&T does not see it’s role as a debunker of pseudo-science. Even tho, we really need all hands on deck as leaders are also prone to making policy based on ideology rather than science.

    Now: Back on topic. Has this been confirmed with follow up observations Did the nucleus break apart? Or in the process of?

  13. Awumdah

    It seems that the perception of so many is swayed by the misinterpretion of pass history and fears of reprisal causing some to view the unknown with paranoia and fear, while others sway opinion to create a profit, or gain advantage. This creates suspicion of motive and harms credibility. perpetuating doubt, conspiracy, and confusion. I’m in awe at how such an intelligent beautiful God so individually unique could have so precisely mislead yourself so far from your original intention life in paradise loving and enjoying yourself in you image with likeness.. Many Gods are attracted here to know from the living things how a God made God’s of himself and now serves God’s while looking for God. Amnesia is the cause of your infinite search in search of yourself. So inflicted by amnesia you search even the dust of your own universe, with hope of a clue to who you are. The God lost. Soon you will find the beginning and walk eternity divided until you learn to love yourself as one, only that will replace your infliction. Though you may never remember your true greatness, at least you can find dignity.

  14. AstroDr.Mike

    Thanks for your excellent report on Comet Elenin. Too bad about Comet Elenin turning out to be a "dud" for visual observers. We "real astronomers" will be continuing to follow Comet Garradd as the real showpiece for the next few months. I’ve been reading Sky & Telescope for over 40 years and you guys do a fantastic job. I’m appalled by the CRACKPOT posts in response to your fine article. It’s truly sad to see such uneducated pseudoscientifically inclined individuals take pot shots at your credibility. If these people had read (and understood) what Sky & Telescope has been publishing since the 1940s, they wouldn’t be making such uninformed and idiotic comments. Keep up the great work at Sky & Telescope!

  15. rob g

    Since there is speculation that the comet has broken up into pieces or evaporated which i cannot see happening. When the earth passes through the debri field wouldn’t that indicate that a possibility that the earth may in the way of some of those broken up pieces? remember that the schumacher levy comet did the same thing when it was in the grasp of jupiters gravitational pull and got popped good. lets just say a tiny piece came off a few hundred yards or so. at that speed and at that size it would be like the 1908 tungusta blast times ten. I am just saying that it may not indicate that it would happen. And is the U.S government being honest in letting the public aware of of its current plans to hoodwink the public about all the deep earth tunnels and storage of suppies in these tunnels. The digging in colorado next to the airport? Salt mines in Utah. Norad underground facilities in other areas all over the country and yet we are not previ to it. I understand that in the forties and fifties the us had plenty of sites for missiles right in the communities we all live in yes they did that. And no one knew about it because it wasn’t our right to know about it just like this is.

  16. MarkA

    Hi Tony,

    You state the the JPL website sometimes is not updated regularily. So what you are telling me is that with all the government taxpeayer funding that NASA receives, they cannot update a website as fast as some of these…I guess you would say…"more esoteric" sites?

    That, in and of itself, boggles the mind.



  18. Graham W. Wolf

    Greetings to all out there…
    Comet C/2010 X1 Elenin’s partial self-destruction and massive fade-out over the last fortnight or so, is a most timely reminder of that famous quote… "Comets are capricuous astrophysical creatures:- the only predictable thing about them, is their unpredictability".
    Observing from the Barber Grove Observatory (BGO) here in Lower Hutt, NZ; one only has to recall the personal observational data for C/2009P1 Garradd, for substantive "re-inforecment" of that axiom in recent weeks. Some days C/2009 P1 has a tail, some days it doesn’t. I boldly suggest that visual astronomy would be potentially dull and boring if comets behaved precisely on cue, to some sort of pre-ordained script…. heck, that’s the stuff of Hollywood, NOT astrophysical science! Humankind belongs to the Universe… the Universe does NOT belong to humankind. We astronomers should consider ourselves to be very privileged observers of the Universe, not the (potentially arrogant) masters of it.

    Observe, measure, write it down, report, publish… then go out and observe some more… wishing you all clear skies and excellent peer-reviewed data!

    Graham W. Wolf:- (Barber Grove Observatory) Lower Hutt, NZ.

  19. Streetwized

    To read at this late date on a supposedly science-based website dealing with astronomy, that comets are made mostly of dirty ice cores along with other have it posted as fact and not contradiction to satellite data and even JPL and NASA reports over the last DECADE is truly astonishing. If that is still the model you base your other views and postings regarding comets and solar science then all I can say is no wonder every other headline about space these days starts out by saying " Scientists were suprised" Experts left scractching their heads"
    What an absolute waste of my sign up time.

  20. Liss

    Ok so ELENIN is going to be nothing, ok. So does that mean we all of a sudden believe absolutely everything TPTB are telling us, about everything?
    I think it’s interesting to study the ancients and their astornomical knowledge and find nothing to laugh at within it. It amazes me that people are so sure nothing will ever happen to us in our lifetime. Where did this superiority complex come from? Well it happened in someone elses lifetime, so why not ours? Besides, if it’s not ELENIN, it WILL be something else, astronomical or not. You don’t have to be an idiot to get what’s going on.

  21. Dr.Gooberstein

    Thanks for the update I feel so much more at ease. Especially since all the Hurricanes and Typoons and X-flare’s from the sun have been increasing. I guess it is just coincidence and global warming.

    I also have not noticed any increase in earthquakes at the 37degreesN since "little elly" came into our solar sytem. It is safe to know, since this article and the betting CBIGGS that we are not going to have an "deep impact".

    Thanks for update! I find so amazing how a comet that is so small, and generates no tail, can have such an overwhelming response that our entire news agency refuses to mention it all. Go figure 🙂

  22. Phill Whyte

    Has anyone noticed that commet Elenin seems to be the focal for alot of doomsdayers? It is gone and still they hang on. I think the time we are in and the access to global comunucation has driven the end of world idea to new limits. FEMA, Elenin, 2012 ….. There is a vaccum that many people are falling into. Some need to have the world end now? In 50 years from now I am sure it will be analized, like flower power etc. you get my meaning not the best analogie but you know. Being in the middle of it right now you can’t really tell why. But I am sure in 50 years from now people will look back at all this crazyness and laugh. Like global warming… the earth has been warming since the last ice age? I am sure it will coll off again at some time in the future. There is new forms of energy being played with all the time.EG: The US military filed a patent on a magnetic fridge. Real low power. In 10 years it will be sold in your favorite store… Here is the reference Not sure of the patent number for the US millitary but you can look it up. See you in 2013.

  23. Jon Iverson

    This is no meteor. It has a pyramidal shaped when seeing the solar radiation bounce off. All of the doubter will be silenced soon. The Lumunati are here.

  24. S. Breazeal

    You’ve had months of warning about Elenin, you’ve seen it coming, please spare us any more of the gibberish and descend into your hermetically sealed hidey-holes. Hopefully you’re off the grid, too, you don’t want any mutated survivors coming after your dehydrated water and vacuum-sealed survival meals.

  25. Robert

    Are we exactly sure when and where Elenin will first appear to the naked eye or easily visible with binoculars. I mean like I live on the west coast which direction should I look and when should I expect to have a good view. I have Meade telescope that I want to set up out side when the visibility is easily attainable. So I can a least see this monster coming and watch the fire works. Yours truly, a Rinky dinky armature astronomer. Who sense’s trouble on the horizon.

  26. Will

    Just because the comet has self-destructed (broken up into smaller pieces) doesnt mean the matter or mass making up the comet has suddenly disappeared. It will however cause it to lose mass more quickly than before due to solar weathering, since the multiple smaller pieces means more available surface area to be ablated.

  27. angbuzz

    I am reading these post and it just cracks me up. I don’t consider myself highly inteligent but I question others who bring up theirs in a conversation. Like the two people who bet the world isnt going to end. How do u plan to payout if your wrong?

All comments must follow the Sky & Telescope Terms of Use and will be moderated prior to posting. Please be civil in your comments. Sky & Telescope reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter’s username, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.