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Best of 2011: Billion-Ton Comet May Have Missed Earth by a Few Hundred Kilometers in 1883

In October, a reanalysis of historical observations suggested that Earth narrowly avoided an extinction event just over a hundred years ago

On 12th and 13th August 1883, an astronomer at a small observatory in Zacatecas in Mexico made an extraordinary observation. José Bonilla counted some 450 objects, each surrounded by a kind of mist, passing across the face of the Sun.

Bonilla published his account of this event in a French journal called L’Astronomie in 1886. Unable to account for the phenomenon, the editor of the journal suggested, rather incredulously, that it must have been caused by birds, insects or dust passing front of the Bonilla’s telescope. (Since then, others have adopted Bonilla’s observations as the first evidence of UFOs.)

Today, Hector Manterola at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, and a couple of pals, give a different interpretation. They think that Bonilla must have been seeing fragments of a comet that had recently broken up. This explains the ‘misty’ appearance of the pieces and why they were so close together.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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