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A Conversation With: Angela Speck

An MU director of astronomy tackles the question: apocalypse or mock-pocalypse?

Justin Whaley

December 20, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST

When Angela Speck was 5 years old, she decided she wanted to be an astronaut, a decision that’s led her to
a lifetime of studying astronomy. Speck, the director of the astronomy department at MU, has dedicated her time and knowledge to the study of infrareds and stardust. Speck has her doctorate in the subject and has been awarded numerous grants. She has also spoken at conferences and has written for more than 40 peer-reviewed publications.

Just one day before the supposed end of the world on Dec. 21, many people will be packing their bug out bags in preparation for the cataclysmic event. Speck says not to panic, as the end of the world won’t happen anytime soon. Vox sat down with Speck to hear why humans will still be around on Dec. 22 and for many years to come.

Do you believe the world is going to end Dec. 21, 2012?
No. Why would it? Let me put it this way, I have a calendar in my office that ends on Dec. 31. Do you think the world’s going to end on Dec. 31? That’s about how relevant the end of the Mayan calendar is. The Mayans never predicted the end of the world. They had this calendar, and it’s like your odometer turning over from 999,999 miles to 1 million miles. It’s something that is not that big of a deal.

What about the hypothesis that a planet, Nibiru, is going to collide with Earth?
Five years ago when this was first being put out, the planet would have been far enough away from us that we couldn’t see it. As time goes on and it gets closer, it should have been bright enough to see. It shouldn’t have been any further than Saturn at its furthest. We’re talking about something that’s supposed to be the size of Jupiter; it’s going to be visible to us two years ago. But no, there’s no weird object in the sky. At this point, three weeks out, we’re talking about something that would be brighter than the moon. It’s not there!

How big would something have to be to have a devastating effect on Earth?
The most popular hypothesis for the end of the dinosaurs is an asteroid impact. We’re talking about something sizeable, but if something that was 10 kilometers across, which is a modest size for an asteroid, hit us, then that would be a problem.

What would be the immediate effects?
It depends on where you are. If you’re right where it lands, then yes, it’s immediate. It depends whether it hits on land or on ocean. And if it hits in the ocean, we’re talking tsunamis –– big tsunamis. If it hits on land, it will cause lots of material thrown up into the atmosphere. So, basically, anybody that survives the immediate effects and the almost-immediate tsunami-type effects will eventually die because of nuclear winter.

Is there any chance something could hit us in the future?
There is this asteroid that’s called Apophis. Because we can detect them far enough out, we can say there’s something that’s coming really close. We can’t say it’s going to hit us, but we can say it’s going to come really close to us in, like, 2036.

Is there anything we can do to stop it?
There is, but we shouldn’t go the route of the movies (blowing it up) because all that does is break it up into small pieces, and so then you get hit by lots of small pieces. You need to deflect it slightly, and you can do things like painting it a different color. If the sunlight is hitting it and absorbing it, you make it black instead of white. You can get the sunlight to shift its orbit very slightly. You don’t need to move it very much; you just need to come up with a way to move it just a little bit.

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