So, a story surfaced on the internet earlier this month that seems to have a lot of people excited about January 4th, 2014, or so-called 'Zero G Day'. Apparently, a planetary alignment between Jupiter and Pluto at 9:47 a.m. on that day will allow anyone leaping into the air at exactly that moment to defy gravity for a short time, taking up to three seconds to float back down to the ground.
Unfortunately for anyone really looking forward to experiencing such an extraordinary phenomenon, there's several problems with the story, the biggest of which is that it's just not true.
Oh, it's true that British astronomer Patrick Moore did say on BBC Radio that a conjunction of Jupiter and Pluto would cause what he called the 'Jovian–Plutonian gravitational effect' — where the gravitational pull of the two planets would combine to momentarily counter Earth's gravity and make everyone lighter. He also said that if everyone jumped at 9:47 a.m. on the day in question, they would feel a floating sensation.
However, Moore, who died in December of 2012, said those things over 38 years ago, in April of 1976. Not only that, but the exact time and date of the phenomenon should set off alarm bells in people's minds — 9:47 a.m. on the 1st of April, or April Fools Day.
Also, in the story posted earlier this month, the headline stated "January 4th 2014 —Planetary Alignment Decreases Gravity — Float For 5 minutes!" while inside the story it said "if you jump in the air at 9:47 AM local time on January 4th 2014, it should take you about 3 seconds to land back on your feet instead of the usual 0.2 seconds." There's quite the discrepancy between five minutes and three seconds, and there's quite the difference between the story's claim that you will actually float and Moore's claim that people would feel a 'floating sensation'.
Those facts alone should raise enough skepticism about the entire story, but there are physical aspects to this that show it's just not possible.
Firstly, regardless of whether you're talking about April 1st, 1976 or January 4th, 2014, Jupiter and Pluto aren't anywhere close to being in conjunction. In fact, on both dates, they're on completely opposite sides of the sun from each other. Launch NASA's Eyes on the Solar System browser to see for yourself (be sure to click on 'Visual Controls' and tick the 'Dwarf Planets & TNOs' option to see where Pluto is).
Secondly, even if Jupiter and Pluto were in alignment, the forces involved are so extremely small that we wouldn't feel any differently here on Earth. Doing a little calculation using Newton's law of universal gravitation, your average 75-kilogram person standing on Earth's surface would feel a force of only around 0.000024 newtons from Jupiter, and adding the effect of tiny, distant Pluto would tack on another 0.0000000000037 newtons to that. If these extremely weak forces were able to counter Earth's gravity, even for a few seconds, we wouldn't be here today. Since the moon exerts over 100 times that force on us every time it goes by overhead, and the sun exerts a force over 18,000 times that on us, our ancient ancestors would have probably flown off into space just by taking a step. Lucky thing the Earth's gravity pulls us down with over 30 million times the combined force of Jupiter and Pluto, and over 1,600 times what we feel from the sun.
So, apologies to anyone who was really excited about this. It is really neat to contemplate these kinds of things, and it's an amazing fact that every object in the universe exerts a gravitation force on every other object, no matter how distant. However, over those distances, the forces are just so tiny that they don't have the kind of effect this hoax is promising.
Look on the bright side, though. Since the forces involved are so small, even when you add them all up, all the stories you hear about planetary or galactic alignments causing the Earth to be destroyed are false too!
(Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
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