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In Announcing Comet Crack-Up NASA Displays the Write Stuff

27 October 2011 11:04 am
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NASA

NASA’s prediction of comet Elenin’s orbit.

The comet Elenin, never more than a modest celestial ice ball, has broken into even smaller pieces, NASA announced 25 October. In itself, the observation is no big news, as roughly one in every 50 comets suffers a similar fate. However, some bloggers had predicted that Elenin's 16 October passage by Earth would trigger earthquakes and other natural disasters and accused NASA of covering up the threat. Although scientists had already debunked such claims, the press release reporting the comet's demise handles the controversy with a candor and panache that any fan of science or good writing should find gratifying.

Elenin is now a "trail of piffling particles that will remain on the same path as the original comet," DC Agle of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, writes in the release. He explains that the agglomeration of "uninspiring dust and ice" never got closer to Earth than 35.4 million kilometers and that once its debris passes out of the inner solar system it won't return for 12,000 years. The release simply acknowledges that some bloggers had accused NASA of trying to hide the truth. Without being condescending, it lays out the reasons why there never was a threat.

Bloggers had suggested that Elenin's gravitational tug would wreak havoc on Earth. To illustrate that such a scenario is farfetched, Agle quotes Donald Yeomans of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at JPL, who explains that Elenin's gravitational tug on Earth is weaker than that of his subcompact car. The two even work in an homage to the famed British comedy troupe Monty Python: Elenin, it seems, is "an ex-comet."

"I do my best to engage the NASA audience and it seemed appropriate to have a lighter touch on the keyboard for this story than some for others," says Agle, who has been writing for JPL for 8 years and has also written for television and for magazines. Agle says he received numerous e-mails and calls from people genuinely concerned about the threats that they had heard Elenin posed. "When they reach out to me or one of my colleagues at NASA, many simply want answers," he says. "They want to know more about their place in the universe, so I have to respect them for asking. After all, that is what NASA is all about."

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