On 6 April 2016, the New York Post aggregated a news item originally published by the UK tabloid The Sun, which cited “top space scientist” Daniel Whitmire as holding that a “newly discovered planet could destroy Earth any day now”:
A mysterious planet that wiped out life on Earth millions of years ago could do it again, according to a top space scientist.
And some believe the apocalyptic event could happen as early as this month.
Planet Nine — a new planet discovered at the edge of the solar system in January — has triggered comet showers that bomb the Earth’s surface, killing all life, says Daniel Whitmire, of the University of Louisiana. The astrophysicist says the planet has a 20,000-year orbit around the sun and, at its closest to us, it knocks asteroids and comets toward Earth.
Fossil evidence has suggested most life on Earth is mysteriously wiped out every 26 million to 27 million years.
Whitmire claims Planet Nine’s passage through a rock-laden area called the Kuiper Belt is responsible for the “extinction events.”
The material as presented was hardly convincing from an astrophysics-centric perspective, as its most compelling portions utilized weasel words such as “some believe” and “some are convinced” without elaborating upon whether “some” were actual scientists or apocalypse cultists.
We located some additional information on the topic via a 30 March 2016 press release from the University of Arkansas concerning “Planet X” and other mass extinctions that have been observed in global fossil records:
Periodic mass extinctions on Earth, as indicated in the global fossil record, could be linked to a suspected ninth planet, according to research published by a faculty member of the University of Arkansas Department of Mathematical Sciences.
Daniel Whitmire, a retired professor of astrophysics now working as a math instructor, published findings in the January issue of Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society that the as yet undiscovered “Planet X” triggers comet showers linked to mass extinctions on Earth at intervals of approximately 27 million years.
An initial red flag that appeared in contrasting the Post‘s outlandish claims and the university press release was the age of some of the discoveries in question. While the current viral article repeatedly references an imminent apocalyptic event due to a “newly discovered” planet, the university press release describes study that has been ongoing for more than 30 years:
Whitmire and his colleague, John Matese, first published research on the connection between Planet X and mass extinctions in the journal Nature in 1985 while working as astrophysicists at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Their work was featured in a 1985 Time magazine cover story titled, “Did Comets Kill the Dinosaurs? A Bold New Theory About Mass Extinctions.”
More illuminating is the fact that the university press release makes absolutely no mention whatsoever of any imminent catastrophes. That item is notably inconclusive and ends with a question about the planet’s potential impact on the fossil record over the course of millions of years:
Whitemire and Matese’s theory is that as Planet X orbits the sun, its tilted orbit slowly rotates and Planet X passes through the Kuiper belt of comets every 27 million years, knocking comets into the inner solar system. The dislodged comets not only smash into the Earth, they also disintegrate in the inner solar system as they get nearer to the sun, reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth.
In 1985, a look at the paleontological record supported the idea of regular comet showers dating back 250 million years. Newer research shows evidence of such events dating as far back as 500 million years.
Whitmire and Matese published their own estimate on the size and orbit of Planet X in their original study. They believed it would be between one and five times the mass of Earth, and about 100 times more distant from the sun, much smaller numbers than Caltech’s estimates.
Matese has since retired and no longer publishes. Whitmire retired from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2012 and began teaching at the University of Arkansas in 2013.
Whitmire says what’s really exciting is the possibility that a distant planet may have had a significant influence on the evolution of life on Earth.
“I’ve been part of this story for 30 years,” he said. “If there is ever a final answer I’d love to write a book about it.”
We contacted Whitmire via e-mail to ask about the Post‘s claim that all life on Earth could be wiped out in April 2016, and he quickly replied: “No truth to the story at all. That’s quite impossible.”
We also got in touch with the press department at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium to find out more, but we have not yet received a response. Nonetheless, aside from the alarmist claims of two tabloids, we found no evidence there was any truth to the immediacy of the “Planet X” rumors.