Feb 18, 2023 I Brent Swancer

An Apocalypse, Conspiracies, Aliens, and a Mysterious Doomsday Comet

Since time unremembered comets have held a certain fascination for us. There have long been various legends, myths, and strange tales associated with them, mostly stemming from our dim undertanding in ages past of what they exactly were, what they meant, and how the universe worked. These were long representative of celestial forces we could not fathom, yet even as we have come to some enlightenment and comprehension of what these phenomena are and how they work, the almost mystical allure of comets has persisted right into the present day, making some people go absolutely bonkers when they pass. The sad case of the Heaven's Gate cult is just but one example of many, and another comet that caused its fair amount of mischief and mayhem was one that came flying by in 2010 to incite all manner of end of world predictions and theories on aliens, conspiracies, and everything in between. 

On December 10, 2010, a Russian amateur astronomer by the name of Leonid Elenin was using a remotely operated telescope of the International Scientific Optical Network's robotic observatory, located near Mayhill, New Mexico, when he noticed a comet with an apparent magnitude of 19.5, meaning it was about 150,000 times fainter than can be seen with the naked eye, and measuring an estimated 2 to 3 kilometers in diamter. The comet was given the official designation of C/2010 X1, although it would be more popularly known simply as Comet Elenin. For the most part it was a rather nondescript, unremarkable comet, with nothing particularly strange, peculiar, or menacing about it at all, and indeed it would never even become visible to the naked eye on Earth, but it nevertheless would have a huge impact on conspiracy theorists and doomsayers around the world, taking on a life of its own with stories of the end of the world, shady government cover-ups, and aliens.

In January of 2011, the comet was still pretty far away, but that didn’t stop Laura Knight-Jadczyk, who has been referred to as a “a pseudohistorian and unified conspiracy theorist,” from putting up a series of provocative posts on her blog claiming that the comet would pose a grave threat to Earth, very much in the vain of what the comet Hale-Bopp was supposed to do in the 1990s. This and some YouTube videos that followed are thought to have been the spark that started the flames of rampant conspiracies, and rumors about the Elenin Comet were soon swirling on the Internet out of control, ballooning into a wide range of far out ideas and wild speculation.

One popular conspiracy theory at the time was that Elenin was not a comet at all, but rather the sinister rogue planet called Nibiru, also known as Planet X, which is a hypothetical unknown planet in our solar system with by some accounts a highly eccentric 3,600-year orbit that periodically comes close to the Earth, and is supposed to spell doom for our planet in the future. Nibiru was first proposed by alien contactee Nancy Lieder, who claimed that it would pass by Earth in 2003, causing cataclysmic events and possibly even an alien invasion. This was further fueled by the economist and conspiracy theorist Zecharia Sitchin, who claimed that not only was Nibiru a doomsday planet to look out for, but that it had ironically created all of the life on Earth it sought to destroy in the first place and that it was inhabited by mythological beings mentioned in Middle Eastern and Mesopotamian mythology known as the Anunnaki, and as proof he pointed to “evidence” hidden in a prophecy written by the ancient Sumerians and confirmed in the Old Testament. Although the destruction of Earth (and alien invasion?) in 2003 obviously did not come to pass, the idea stuck around that there was a dangerous rogue planet lurking somewhere out there in the void prowling around and waiting to wipe us out, with numerous other Nibiru doomsday predictions that were this time totally going to happen for real you guys, and now people were saying that Comet Elenin was it. 

A tamer version of the Nibiru theory was that Comet Elenin was going to directly collide with Earth to apocalyptic results, or at the very least it would bombard us with debris from its tail, also bad. Another related idea was that the comet’s alignment with Earth was somehow causing disasters around the world already, with the February 2010 Chile earthquake and the March 2011 Japan earthquake cited as evidence of this. It was also speculated that the comet would exert a catastrophic gravitational pull on Earth that would knock our orbit off kilter and cause all sorts of mayhem, or that it was an "electric comet" and this would somehow negatively affect Earth, and there was even the idea that it would eclipse the Sun to cause "three days of darkness." Some were even suggesting that this was a wandering brown dwarf star. These were all completely unfounded ideas based on flights of fancy, many in direct violation of anything we know about space and comets, but they were spinning out of control on the Internet and these weren’t even the weirdest ideas.

While these ideas were all pretty outlandish, they were given a certain air of believability because they were at least tied in some sense to reality, however loosely, but then there were the truly out-there rumors making the rounds. These ideas included that Elenin was a biblical portent of doom, that it was actually Lucifer himself, or that it was a, wait a sec, let me check my notes, here it is, a “supermassive black carbon star.” One popular idea was that the comet was being followed by one or more alien spacecraft, similar to what was being said about the comet Halle Bopp back in the 1990s, and there were even telescope images of the comet where it is surrounded by "strings" of white blobs to further fuel these rumors. There was also a piece of fake news that claimed that Chinese scientists had seen UFOs trailing the comet and there was even included an alleged image of this. One champion of the alien idea was Sorcha Faal, the alleged author of an ongoing series of "reports" published at a site called WhatDoesItMean.com, who is already a mystery unto himself because no one knows who he (or she) really is, although they claim to be a Russian scientist. Faal would post a series of pieces claiming that the comet was not only being trailed by spaceships, but that the comet itself was under intelligent alien control, adding a bunch of bogus citations from supposed authoritative high-level Russian sources to back up these claims and make it seem more official. In a July 2011 Sorcha Faal "report" there it was claimed that eight blobs visible in one photo of the comet are UFOs, belonging to an extraterrestrial civilization.

Yet another line of thinking on Comet Elenin was that the government knew something that we didn’t and that they were covering it all up or using it as some sort of psyop or disinformation campaign. Some were claiming that Leonid Elenin was not even a real person at all, and that this was just a top-secret cover for something more sinister. The name “Elenin” was thought to be some sort of code word and was being rabidly picked apart by people looking for hidden meanings within it, and boy, did they come up with some doozies. According to the RationalWIki, some of these include:

Someone noticed that "Elenin" contains "ELE" ("extinction level event"), the term used for the results of the comet impact in the movie Deep Impact. Several other coincidences sent the conspiratorial thinking imagination into overdrive: in the movie, the comet is discovered by a teenager named Leo Biederman, which is similar to Leonid Elenin. Someone else expanded it to "ELE NINe". Good try, but it's a pity that there are only five major mass extinctions and a dozen or so lesser ones. Filed under "the Universe revolves around the US" (but still uses European-style dates) is "ELEven NINe", sometimes paired with the claim that the comet will reach its perihelion or closest approach to Earth on 11 September 2011. The current scientific projection for the perihelion is 10 September 2011 (and no, even in a US timezone it's not the 11th) and for the closest approach is 16 October. Others include "EXTINTION LEVEL EVENT NIBIRU IS NEAR", "EXTINTION LEVEL EVENT NIBIRU IN NOVEMBER", "EXTINTION LEVEL EVENT NON-AVOIDABLE IMPACT IN NOVEMBER,” and "Extinction Level Event Niburu Inbound Now.

There was a lot of supposed evidence being presented that somehow proved that the U.S. government was covering up the true nature of Comet Elenin. One of these was the fact that the mainstream media wasn’t really reporting on it at all, and it was pointed out that a Google News search for "Comet Elenin" didn't return any results at the time. Although it was being covered in other countries and the main reason for so little coverage outside of specialized astronomy publications was probably due to the fact that Comet Elenin just wasn’t that special, conspiracy theorists saw this as a red flag that information was being suppressed. The comet was actually widely reported on in Europe and Russia, but this was seen as a ruse, and even when Elenin started appearing on Google it was claimed that the information had been doctored and altered to aid in an aggressive campaign of disinformation.

Another purported clue to a cover-up conspiracy was that some of the wild theories were being posted on the NASA Buzzroom, which was a social network aggregator that was designed to pull together Twitter messages, Flickr images and YouTube videos in order to aggregate content about NASA and/or space exploration. Despite the fact that the software also often picked up a lot of random crap from the Internet and because there was no disclaimer to this effect on the site, it was thought that if it appeared on an official NASA domain, this meant that it was some kind of leak or endorsement. The whole fiasco actually caused NASA to shut down the Buzzroom entirely, which of course only strengthened the conspiracy theorists’ resolve that this was indeed being covered up. Similarly, unfounded ideas on Elenin were appearing on a site called “arXiv,” a digital archive of scientific papers curated by Cornell University. The fact that conspiracy information on Elenin was appearing on such an academic site gave conspiracy theorists more ammunition to support their bonkers ideas, but they overlooked the fact that “arXiv” is a place where scientists can upload the drafts of their unpublished papers to freely discuss them with other scientists, and so therefore the criteria for admission were lax to say the least, with papers on various fringe areas and pseudoscience constantly popping up there with no hope at all of ever being published in a proper scientific journal. 

A bizarre little clue was claimed to be found on the JPL's Small-Body Database Browser, which at the time was the only real place that carried official information on the comet and which was meticulously scrutinized by conspiracy theorists. In the "Producer" field of Comet Elenin's entry in JPL's Small-Body Database Browser there was found the unusual name of “Otto Matic,” and when this name was Googled it led to a video game developed by Pangea Software that features a robot called Otto Matic Proto, who travels to a planet called “Planet Xallamarphamandos.” You got it, Planet X. Bingo. Although JPL's programmers likely just wrote the name as a pun for “automatic” and meant nothing by it at all outside of a gag, it was seen by conspiratists as an intriguing clue pointing to Elenin’s true sinister nature.  

By August of 2011, Elenin was at the closest it would ever come to Earth, around 22 million miles, and the talk of doomsday and/or alien invasion was reaching a fever pitch. While most people went about their day with complete disinterest in a nondescript comet that even astronomers thought was boring and which couldn’t even be seen with the naked eye, others were bracing for the end of times, convinced that we were about to be wiped out. Then Comet Elenin then approached our sun and…. it was blasted by a coronal mass ejection and shortly after disintegrated into fragments, and by October it was little more than a cloud of dust that careened off into space to never be seen again. Even then conspiracy theorists held onto their ideas, saying that the sun had luckily wiped out the harbinger of doom before it could destroy us all and had miraculously saved us, by some accounts even by divine intervention, but astronomers just shrugged their shoulders because, well, it was a completely normal thing to happen to a comet. Don Yeomans of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, would say of it:

Elenin did as new comets passing close by the sun do about 2 percent of the time: It broke apart. Comets are made up of ice, rock, dust and organic compounds and can be several miles in diameter, but they are fragile and loosely held together like dust balls. So it doesn't take much to get a comet to disintegrate, and with comets, once they break up, there is no hope of reconciliation. So Elenin's demise was fairly unremarkable, just like the comet itself. It's just Mother Nature putting an end to another mediocre comet. Elenin's remnants will also act as other broken-up comets act. They will trail along in a debris cloud that will follow a well-understood path out of the inner solar system. After that, we won't see the scraps of comet Elenin around these parts for almost 12 millennia. I cannot begin to guess why this little comet became such a big Internet sensation. The scientific reality is this modest-sized icy dirtball's influence upon our planet is so incredibly minuscule that my subcompact automobile exerts a greater gravitational influence on Earth than the comet ever would.

Now you could say that this is what they want you to think, and that Yeomans and other scientists are just government shills paid off to keep their mouths shut, or you could take the word of an actual space scientist over that of some random nobody on the Internet. The choice seems obvious, but amazingly Comet Elenin conspiracy theories are still being discussed and considered in certain corners of the web to this day, and the rumors simply just won’t die. It’s really quite amazing that such a small, rather boring comet could have so many kooks, cranks, conspiracy theorists, and doomsayers gravitate towards it, and although in the end the comet fizzled out, it left a legacy as a case study in how doomsday conspiracy and UFO theories originate, develop and spread out of control to become larger than life through sensationalism, disinformation, misunderstandings, and bad science. In the end, there may very well be a threat from space that threatens us with an extinction level event at some point, but this wasn't it. 

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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