Stunning evidence has emerged that the Earth avoided a cosmic bullet that could have wiped out the entire human race less than 130 years ago.
A new study done at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México revealed the amazingly close counter.
An 1883 UFO?
At the time the photo was taken by Mexican astronomer José Banilla, the day of August 12, 1883, it caused a stir among some astronomers who speculated that the object transiting the disc of the sun might have been a giant, intelligently controlled spaceship piloted by superior beings from Venus or Mars. During the 19th Century, many astronomers thought intelligent life—even advanced cities—might exist on those two worlds.
When the intriguing photo was made public during 1886 by the French publication L'Astronomie, people openly speculated on a possible alien origin. Almost a century later, UFO researchers dubbed the object the first ever photograph of an unidentified flying object.
Yet the record shows that L’Astronomie's Editor-in-Chief dismissed the photo as having captured a flight of migrating birds.
'UFO' a huge comet that almost collided with Earth
Hector Javier Durand Manterola, the lead researcher on the study of the photograph and its real implications, realized what the photo captured: a large comet passing in front of the sun. And from their analysis the comet showed evidence of breaking up.
But the real excitement came later, when the research team applied celestial mechanics to trace the orbit of the comet.
"Our working hypothesis is that what Bonilla observed in 1883 was a highly fragmented comet," Manterola writes in the study, "in an approach almost flush to the Earth’s surface."
What the astronomer means by "flush" is the comet passed as close as 335 miles from the surface of the Earth. The Moon is an average quarter million miles away.
"The only bodies in the Solar System which are surrounded by a bright mistiness are the comets, so it is appropriate to suppose that the objects seen by Bonilla were small comets," the team explains in the study.
Next, the team calculated the approximate mass of the objects, for as they approached Earth the comet had broken into a swarm of as as many as 447 objects.
Upper size range same as asteroid that killed the dinosaurs
Manterola reports: "Using the results reported by Bonilla, we can estimate the distance at which the objects approach to the Earth’s surface. According to our calculations, the distance at which the objects passed over was between 538 kilometers and 8,062 kilometers—and the width of the objects was between 46 meters and 795 meters."
What that translates into is the unnamed comet had a total mass as much as eight times that of Halley's comet, and some of it could have passed as low as 335 miles to Earth and been as big as 2,608 feet wide—one half mile long.
But secondary calculations show a much bigger mass, one that most life on Earth could not have easily survived had the objects impacted.
"The upper range of this mass estimate is on par with Mars’ moon Deimos, which is generally held to be similar in mass to the progenitor of the impact that killed the dinosaurs." [UniverseToday.com]
Enigma: Lack of significant meteor shower
It's logical to assume a cloud of debris with 447 objects ranging in size from a few dozen feet to half a mile long would precipitate a spectacular meteor shower.
None show up in any records of the time.
Since Bonilla's photo of the object recorded its solar transit just prior to the annual Perseid meteor shower, researchers checked for any telltale signs of increase.
The shower was singularly unremarkable that year. And the radiant (the angle of the perceived origin of the approaching meteors) was unchanged.
Because no spectacular meteor shower followed the passage of the comet by Earth, many astronomers doubt the study is entirely accurate.