Omen of Doom - Science and Mysteries (Part 1)

Can something in space cause animals to be born with two heads? Why were the most fearsome warriors our planet has ever known stopped by a flaming light in the sky? How did Columbus use secret knowledge of the heavens to cheat death in the New World?

Our ancestors saw a universe filled with bad omens. But what were they really seeing? And how did fear of these objects in the sky change history? Ancient mysteries, shrouded in the shadows of time... Now, can they finally be solved by looking to the heavens? The truth is up there, hidden among the stars in a place we call... For our ancestors, the skies were filled with equal parts wonder... And terror.

Bad omens from above changed human history... again and again. Four centuries before the birth of Jesus, it is a time of war... Athens versus Sparta. And this time it's for keeps. Control of the ancient world hangs in the balance. Thousands of brave warriors, hundreds of ships at sea... all poised for action, waiting for the command from their leaders to unleash hell on Earth. And then... An omen. A strange light in the sky. A fiery object said to be visible for 75 days. As both sides nervously watch and wait. It's an omen. But what does it mean, and what is the object?

The Spartans devise a strategy. They send an envoy to the Greeks, saying that with such a bad omen overhead, battle would have to wait. As days stretch into weeks, the Greeks grow confident no attack is coming. So that is when the Spartans strike-- a sneak attack... decimating the Greeks and marking the beginning of the end for the nearly 30-year-long Peloponnesian War. The final toll is staggering-- more than 3,000 Greek men captured and killed on the spot. It couldn't be any clearer.

To the Greeks, the defeat was definitive proof the Greek Gods had sent the sky object as a bad omen. If you're in the middle of a war and you see an omen in the skies, that's gonna mean something bad. It's something to be concerned about.

But what was the object in the sky that brought an end to nearly 30 years of war?


One account of the object describes, A fiery body of vast size, as if it had been a flaming cloud, not resting in one place, but moving along with intricate and irregular motions." Could the ancient Greeks have been describing a meteor?

Also known as shooting stars, meteors make a fiery display as they streak across the sky. But since they're actually small rocks and bits of dust burning up as they fall through the atmosphere, meteors don't last very long. They're visible for a matter of seconds, not days or months, as the Greeks described. Asteroids take longer to pass through the sky, but because they're dark, almost none of them are visible to the naked eye.

What the ancient Greeks could have seen, however, was a comet. Myth-makers fear comets, because they linger in the sky for weeks, even months at a time. The idea of seeing a comet for 75 days, I could buy that. On average, only one bright comet is visible to the naked eye each decade, meaning the appearance of one in the sky would've been a rare and remarkable event to the ancients.

Comets are made of materials that we find readily here on Earth. They're largely made up of dry ice, frozen carbon dioxide like we exhale, as well as water, a little bit of organic material, ammonia, not too different than what's in cleaning materials, and even silicates like in sand from the beach. When you mix all of these ingredients together, you have the recipe for a comet.

When the ancient Greeks described a flaming cloud in the sky, is this what they were seeing-- a comet, changing its position in the sky almost nightly, faster than anything they had ever seen? And what gives these icy objects the fiery appearance that spooked the ancients?

As a gross overview, a comet has two parts. It has the solid part and the long tail. When people talk about a comet's tail, they're really talking about two tails. You see, a comet has a dust tail-- the material, the solid bits, the icy bits that come off the comet-- and an ion tail-- ionized material from the comet pushed away by solar wind. Comet tails come in all shapes and sizes. But they also have one thing in common-- the tail points away from the sun, no matter what part of its orbit the comet is in. As comets streak into the inner part of the solar system, they slowly heat up from the sun's heat. As they heat up, they grow an amazing tail that doesn't streak out behind them, the way a lot of people think, but rather it's pushed by the sun's radiation. How we're able to see that tail depends on where we are relative to the sun and the comet. And sometimes that tail's pushed out such that as the comet flies away from the sun, it flies into its own tail.

Comets may hold the answer to one of the most fundamental questions about our planet. On Earth, where there is water, there is life. But just where did that water come from? Many have proposed the water in Earth's oceans was delivered by comets crashing into the planet. Others believe the water hitched a ride inside rocky asteroids. Which theory is correct?

Enter Rosetta-- a mission designed to survey then land a space probe on a comet. Rosetta and its lander, called tracked down a comet known as 67P after a ten-year journey through space. So how do you get to a comet? Loop around our solar system multiple times, including a daring low-altitude skim less than 200 miles above the surface of Mars. Then jam on the brakes. After establishing a stable orbit of the comet, was deployed, and the world watched and waited.

The gravity on a comet is so little that the pull on that spacecraft was no different than the weight of a piece of paper on your hand. The lander had to be equipped with harpoons that would help attach it to the surface of the comet. When those didn't deploy, the lander actually bounced, making it not just a day for the first comet landing, but also the second. Unfortunately, when finally came to rest, it was partially in the shade of a cliff. That meant that the solar panels were only receiving about an hour and a half of sunlight, instead of the six hours that we were anticipating that they would.

However, the Rosetta team deployed all of its instruments at once, trying to get as much data as they possibly could before the lander ran out of batteries. Despite the bad luck, the Rosetta mission was able to make a significant discovery. It appears unlikely a comet like this one brought water to our planet. Its vapor has a different chemical mix than we see on Earth. That leaves asteroids as the most likely source of our water. An important finding that could tilt decades of debate. Even if comets didn't bring water here, they do carry with them a set of beliefs, superstitions, and omens unlike anything else in the night sky.

Were the ancients right that there's one comet in the solar system with the power to cause the birth of two-headed animals? And could that same comet end all life on Earth?

Normandy, France, the year 1066. A grand army prepares for an invasion that could change the course of history. They are Norman French soldiers, descendants of Vikings and warriors, and they are led by a man who will become known as William the Conqueror. William's army is on the move, inspired by an omen in the night sky. And what a sight it is. Where once there was only the normal stars and planets, now on view is an object four time larger in the sky than Venus and a quarter of the brightness of a full moon. The Normans take the comet's appearance and the disruption in the heavens as an omen that God is angry at their enemy-- the English king Harold.

Comets have been associated with the death of kings, because comets linger in the heavens. Meteors, they just come and go, but comets linger in the heavens, signaling that the gods are angry at the king and the king must die.

October 14, 1066-- the Normans have crossed the English Channel and engaged King Harold and his forces at the Battle of Hastings. It's time to fight and, for thousands of men, time to die. When the battle finally ends, 6,000 men are dead, more English than Norman. That includes King Harold, whose advisors had warned him the object was a bad omen. And it works. The Normans won. The Anglo-Saxons lost.

The history of the English-speaking world changed forever. The battle and the omen live on in a famous work of art. The Bayeux Tapestry is an incredible work of art. It's 230 feet long, and it tells the whole story of the invasion. It shows them crossing the English Channel. It shows them in battle. It shows the Anglo-Saxon shield wall. It even shows the Anglo-Saxon king dying with an arrow in his eye. And there, hovering over it all, is the omen that set it all in motion-- not just any comet, it's Halley's Comet.

Halley's Comet has been recorded by Chinese astronomers and on ancient stone tablets, dating back thousands of years. The comet swings by the sun once every 75 or 76 years, making it the only comet visible to the naked eye that you can see twice in a lifetime. It seems nearly every time Halley's Comet swings by Earth, it shakes up our history. The ancient Swiss thought of Halley's Comet as such a bad omen, they blamed it for everything from earthquakes to the birth of two-headed animals.

Following its appearance in 1456, it is said the Pope excommunicated the comet, thinking it was a bad omen for Christian soldiers battling the Ottoman Empire. But is fear of Halley's Comet just superstition, or could it really cause earthly Armageddon?

Imagine... November 27, 2061... As amateur astronomers gather for a look at Halley's Comet, stunning news is confirmed. There has been a change in Halley's orbit, and it's headed straight for Earth. If a giant comet were to crash into the Earth, it would really ruin your day. First of all, there would be a blinding flash of heat traveling at the speed of light, infrared radiation, heat radiation coming out. Then a few seconds later, the shockwave. The shockwave traveling near the speed of sound, pulverizing everything in its wake. And then after that, perhaps we would have a tsunami coming at you. Remember that lley's Comet is about 20 miles across, about the size of Manhattan, but the object which destroyed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago was only 6 miles across. And so, if we had Halley's Comet hit the planet Earth, it would be not just a city buster, it would be a planet buster.

Even today we have the technology to track and photograph Halley's Comet at every point in its orbit. In the future, there is time to develop a plan to save humanity. If we have a comet and we've been following its orbit, for many, many years and we know it very accurately and we can predict the collision with Earth decades ahead of time, then we might be able to do something about that comet before it hits the Earth. You can send a spacecraft up there and tug it a little bit so that a bit at a time we pull it away in such a way that it doesn't hit the Earth.

The truly dangerous comets are the ones we've never seen before-- objects with orbits so long that they come in once every thousand or ten thousand years. For a comet coming in for the first time in recorded history, there's essentially nothing we can do with today's technology. We have a few months' warning, maybe one year at maximum. We don't know the trajectory very well. We can't send up the spacecraft. So I'm sorry to say that if there's a giant comet with Earth's name written on it heading toward us for the first time, it's good-bye, cruel world. I'm sorry. A really bad omen that actually come-to pass.

If a new comet is approaching Earth for the first time in recorded history, it's definitely coming in fast. Visualizing the motion of a comet in its orbit is kind of like visualizing the motion of a ball being tossed into the air. It starts out moving fairly quickly, slows at the apex, and accelerates back towards the ground. This is, in fact, a partial orbit. Let's look at one full orbit. So, as a comet moves away from the sun, it's moving fairly quickly until, under the sun's gravitational influence, it slows, reaching the apex, a point we call the aphelion. From that point on, it accelerates back towards the sun, coming... back to its original position.

With our newfound understanding of the dangers that lurk in the solar system, we do have to be aware that some of these bad omens indeed do turn out to have terrible effects on humans on Earth. While our ancestors feared comets, they were even more frightened of another bad omen in the sky-- one that arrives with a sudden shadow and the terror of daytime turned into a potentially endless night.

In the tenth century, a group of Vikings are on top of the world. They've set sail from what we would now call Norway and are bound for the Shetland Islands off the coast of modern-day Scotland. And while they may be ready for anything the North Sea can throw at them, nothing can prepare them for what is happening in the northern sky. One minute, bright sunlight. Then suddenly, a shadow starts to blot out the sun. What's going on?

Norse mythology tells of twin wolves who track the sun and moon. When they catch them and devour them, that will signal the beginning of Ragnarok-- the end of all things. For a Viking, the question he must face is simple yet chilling... is this it? With the midday sun getting darker by the second, is this the end of the world? The Vikings weren't the only ancient people who used creatures to explain the unexplainable.

In ancient China, it was thought that a dragon devoured the sun. This is the bad omen that is a solar eclipse. Historically, in China, people would go outside and bang pots, because they perceived the solar eclipse as a bad omen of a dragon consuming the sun, and by banging the pots, they were scaring away the dragon.

In the case of a total solar eclipse, it actually gets reasonably dark. It can last several minutes. You don't know that the sun's gonna come back. You could go wild with uncertainty about your future, and, indeed, ancient cultures would sometimes react in very, very negative ways to an eclipse. There would be mass murders. All sorts of things could happen. Mayhem would break loose.

In 585 BC, a six-year conflict near present-day Turkey is thrown into turmoil when the day becomes night. - There's some evidence that on May 28, 585, a battle between the Lydians and the Medes was stopped because of a solar eclipse. They were into the sixth year battling each other, and near sunset, a solar eclipse occurred. The battlefield goes quiet, as all involved look to the heavens. And they said, The gods are giving us a sign. We shouldn't be fighting." So they made a truce and even offered their own sons and daughters to the other side for marriage. That was a good thing, even though it was initially thought of as a bad omen.

Continue reading Part 2

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