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Death Star Reality Check: Other Doomsdays Loom Larger

The author of a study highlighting the potential for a "Death Star" to create a hail of killer comets, hundreds of thousands of years from now, says there are shorter-term risks that humanity should address first. The reality check from Coryn Bailer-Jones, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, comes in the wake of his analysis of potential stellar encounters, including a potential close pass by an orange dwarf star known as HIP 85605. Bailer-Jones reported that the star stands a chance of stirring up comets in our solar system's Oort Cloud when it goes past by our own sun 240,000 to 470,000 years from now.

After NBC News' report about the study, Bailer-Jones sent an email discussing his findings and putting them in cosmic perspective. Here's an excerpt:

"Alas, there will always be people who will foretell doom in any event which they refuse to try to understand. ... There is a continuous background of comets entering the inner solar system anyway. A close encounter will likely increase the flux of comets, and that will increase the chance per year of the Earth being hit. But it increases it from a very, very small value to just a very small value. Also, the time scales are very long: We're talking hundreds of thousands, or millions of years.

"Of course, given a long enough time scale, then it's inevitable that something large will be on a collision course with the Earth (but more likely a near-Earth asteroid), just as it's highly likely that a supervolcano will go off within the next few million years. These are real, but very long-term risks, and not worth worrying about now given that humanity faces equally significant risks on much shorter timescales. If people want to try to avoid doom, they should be looking to avoid human-generated catastrophes such as international aggression, environmental destruction and antibiotic resistance.

"To be clear (not that I get misquoted): I think we should be monitoring the sky to identify objects which may hit the Earth. But on a human lifetime we're far more likely to be hit by something relatively small which causes local rather than global damage."

For more about Bailer-Jones' analysis, check out the full manuscript, due for publication in Astronomy & Astrophysics, and this FAQ file.

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