On January 12, 2005 NASA launched its latest space probe, Deep Impact, named after the recent Hollywood science fiction film. Recall, in the cliffhanger a team of courageous astronauts (led by tough guy, Robert Duvall) sacrifice their lives to deflect a speeding comet from its collision course with earth, thus saving human civilization from catastrophe. NASA’s newest mission is also a last-ditch gambit, of sorts: an attempt to save the current comet model.
Open any astronomy book and you will read that comets are dirty snowballsconglomerates of ancient rock and ice left over from the creation of the solar system. And it must be true, right? After all, it says so in the textbooks, and surely the university professors can’t be wrong. The problem is that over the five decades since Fred Whipple first proposed the snowball model in 1950, neither NASA nor anyone has proved that comets are actually made of ice. Every time NASA scientists focus their instruments on the surface of comets, they see only rocky stuff. Comets look like asteroids. So, where’s the ice? After failing repeatedly to find it, NASA has concluded that the ice must be hidden by surface dust, or is buried out of sight. Deep Impact will attempt to resolve this question by looking below the surface.
Next July, if all goes well, the unmanned Deep Impact spacecraft will rendezvous with a small comet named Tempel 1, not to avert a collision, but for the purpose of causing one. Once in position, the craft will send a 300+ pound "impactor"essentially a 3 foot diameter copper projectiledirectly into the speeding comet’s path. No nuke or explosive charge will be needed to blast a hole in the comet’s surface. The comet’s tremendous kinetic energy will do that. Tempel 1 is clipping along at an estimated 12 miles a second.
The plan is to study the 100-300-foot crater excavated by the collision. During its fly-by, the spacecraft will also gather spectroscopic data from the ejected gas, dust and debris. Much planning has gone into the selection of the impact site, to (hopefully) assure that the crater will be in full sunlight, instead of shadow. Comet Tempel 1 has an irregular shapeit is only about 5 miles in diameter. With a bit of luck, NASA’s cameras will obtain a good look at the comet’s freshly excavated surface. It will be the first time that NASA has actually probed the interior of a comet. NASA expects to confirm the presence of ice.
Will they find it?
For the answer we will have to wait until next summer. When the rendezvous happensassuming things go according to planearth bound folks with binoculars will be treated to a show of celestial fireworks; although exactly how bright and visible the collision will be is open to question. The event will take placebelieve it or noton the fourth of July, independence day. One wonders if the neocons in Washington had something to do with this. At very least, the date shows the extent to which science has been politicized.
Snowball in Hell
But, somewhere, God must be laughing at us silly humans, because NASA has about as much chance of finding ice in Tempel 1 as the proverbial snowball in hell. It just ain’t going to happen. There’s too much contrarian evidence. It’s been accumulating for years, and should have melted the ice model, long ago. Yet, NASA stolidly presses onward. The agency greets every new anomaly with ad hoc improvisations, and has gone to increasingly outlandish lengths to preserve its ice theory. Why? Answer: because so much hangs in the balance. The stakes are very high. More is involved than simply comets. At issue is the Red Shift, the expanding universe, the theory of black holes, and yes, even the big bangall at risk if NASA’s cometary house of cards comes crashing down.
To see why the ice model is wrong, let us look at several anomalies:
In 1991 Halley’s Comet caused a stir by announcing itself from so far awayit was then between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus. Halley’s is one of the smaller comets, yet it became visible at fourteen times the distance of the earth from the sun, a fact that solar heating cannot explain. The standard explanation is that the sun’s warmth is responsible for the cometary coma and tail. But at that enormous distance the sun was simply too faint.
Evidence of an even more remarkable phenomenon, the sunward spikepreviously unknownwas first documented in a 1957 photograph of the Comet Arend-Roland. This stunning feature must be seen to be believed. (For a look at a spike go to http://www.star.ucl.ac.uk/)
Over the years since the first sunward spike was photographed, dozens of other comets have been shown, at times, to display this amazing phenomenon. The spikes always point toward the sun. Yet, NASA has dismissed the photographic evidencehowever compellingas nothing but an optical illusion, an artifact, a play of light, etc. Obviously, NASA is in robust denial. Why? Sunward spikes are incompatible with the current ice model.
On May 1, 1996 the Ulysses spacecraft documented another previously unknown feature of comets, when it crossed the tail of Comet Hyakutake at a point more than 350 million miles from the comet’s nucleus. The ephemeral tail, in other words, stretched across the equivalent of three and a half times Earth’s distance from the suna number that is astonishing. The discovery was accidentaland wholly unexpected. Scientists had never guessed that comet tails were so long. Ulysses had been studying the solar wind, and so, had the necessary equipment on board to detect the ions typically associated with comets. The satellite also recorded the magnetic field directional changes that are associated with comet tails. Detailed analysis showed that both kinds of data were in agreement. For most scientists, this was enough to confirm the discovery. Notice, the remarkable tail length means that when Comet Hyakutake moved around the sun toward its minimum point (perihelion), the invisible portion of its tail arced across a vast reach of the solar system. The fact that the tail maintained its integrity at such extreme distance is incompatible with the standard view that the tail is composed of materials blown away from the nucleus. Something more is going on, here. The question is: What?
But the big event, also in 1996, was the discovery of X-rays coming from the head of Hyakutake. This discovery set the scientific world on its ear, because naturally occurring X-rays are associated with extreme temperatures: in the range of millions of degrees Kelvin. Yet, here they were coming from a supposed ball of ice. There was no immediate word from NASA about how or why an icy cold comet could produce X-rays. The discovery was the work of the German ROSAT satellite, and no mistake about it. During the next few years X-radiation was detected in half a dozen other cases, including the Comet Hale-Bopp.
Four years passed before NASA finally announced a solution to the puzzling anomaly. In April 2000, NASA conceded that extreme conditions are necessary for X-ray emission to occur. But, rather than call into question its own theory that comets are cold, NASA attempted to square the circle. The agency explained that the X-rays had been produced by the solar wind, whichit assertedwas merely an extension of the extremely hot solar corona. NASA’s explanation explained nothing, and amounted to a contradiction, as any intelligent high school science student should have been able to judge. The official word showed that NASA was fumbling with a mystery it did not understand, grasping at air like a blind man trying to steady himself. (For NASA’s official word go to http://spacescience.com/)
Next summer, when NASA fails to confirm the presence of ice in the nucleus of Tempel 1, the question that the space agency should have been asking in 1996 will become paramount. (Of course, this does not mean that NASA will come clean. Indeed, it will be interesting to see how far NASA is prepared to go to defend its ice model. Probably the contortions will continue. Not for no reason the agency acronym has been subject to redux: NASA Never A Straight Answer.)
Everyone agrees that comets have an atmosphere. It is known as the coma, and has been shown to include significant amounts of water vapor, along with hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, gaseous hydrocarbons, and various other compounds. The proportions vary from comet to comet. The present model holds that the water comes from the cometary nucleus. The thinking is that the sun’s warmth causes the icy head to sublimate, or out gas, and the solar wind pushes the vapors away in the amazing tail that has always been a source of wonderment and inspiration here on earth. No question, comets are beautiful to behold on a starry night. But neither NASA nor anyone has shown that the water actually comes from the nucleus. Such a deduction is understandable, but it remains unsupported by evidence, and it is almost certainly wrong. I have already cited the puzzling case of Halley’s Comet, whose visibility at extreme distance was incompatible with solar warming. Here’s the key question: If the head is NOT made of ice, how then to account for the known presence of water in the coma and tail? It’s a safe bet that, next summer, NASA will have no answer to this simple question. After all, they couldn’t explain the X-rays.
Not everyone was surprised by the discovery of X-rays. One astronomer named Jim McCanney actually predicted them. He did so as early as 1981 in a scientific paper first published in the journal Kronos. McCanney even urged NASA officials to look for X-rays when the agency was preparing a fly-by of Comet Giacobini-Zinner in 1985. At the time, NASA’s ISEE-3 satellite had already completed its original mission, and was being reprogrammed for comet study. The spacecraft had X-ray equipment on board, and McCanney urged NASA to use it. Instead, NASA shut down the equipment to conserve power. NASA’s experts concluded that there was no point in leaving the X-ray detector on, since there couldn’t possibly be X-rays coming from a cube of ice.
Fortunately, German scientists do not labor under NASA’s ideological thumb. The Germans took McCanney’s recommendation seriously. In 1990 they launched a satellite of their own, the Roentgen Satellite (ROSAT), which was equipped with an X-ray telescope. ROSAT continues to search the heavens for high frequency X-rays. Earth-based X-ray telescopes are not feasible, because earth’s protective atmosphere absorbs X-radiation. This was the satellite that independently made the big discovery in 1996.
The Plasma Discharge Comet Model
McCanney is the originator of an alternative comet theory, what he calls the Plasma Discharge Comet Model. His model challenges several key assumptions current in today’s science, which, he says, must be overturned to correctly understand the nature of comets and the workings of the solar system. One of these assumptions is that space is electrically neutral. "Not so," says McCanney. His comet model is, in fact, but a subset of a grander theory that describes the electrical nature of the sun. McCanney refers to it as the Solar Capacitor Model. He argues that most of the energy released by the sunby faris electrical, rather than in the visible spectrum. According to this view, the sunward spikes are titanic bolts of solar electricity, and comets are anything but cold. On the contrary, they are incredibly hot and fiery crucibles in which chemical and nuclear transmutations are occurring constantly.
McCanney thinks our earth and the other planets were originally comets that were drawn from their more elliptical orbits into more circular orbits. He is also quick to credit another maverick thinker who preceded him: Immanuel Velikovsky. In 1950 Velikovsky authored a controversial book, Worlds in Collision, in which he argued, among other things, that science had failed to account for the electromagnetic nature of comets. Even as the book topped the bestseller charts, several prominent figures in science, among them Carl Sagan, ridiculed Velikovsky and eventually succeeded in destroying his reputation. Velikovsky’s name became almost synonymous with wacko nonsense. How ironic this isbecause the 1996 discovery of cometary X-rays has made Velikovsky look like a prophet. If the Plasma Discharge Comet Model turns out to be correct, McCanney will earn his rightful place alongside Kepler, Galileo, and Newton; and the names Velikovsky and McCanney will be remembered long after NASA and Sagan have been forgotten.
Next time: Why it matters. How the Solar Capacitor Model could save our civilization from self-destructionnow imminent.
To be continued…
MARK GAFFNEY is the author of a 1989 pioneering study of the Israeli nuke program, Dimona the Third Temple. Mark’s latest book, Gnostic Secrets of the Naassenes, has just been released by Inner Traditions Press.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.