by Michael Goodspeed
"It's a mystery to me
how comets work at all."
investigator of NASA's Stardust Mission
No phenomenon in the observed Universe
has been a source of more continuous surprises than comets. In fact,
despite the exterior confidence by astronomers and astrophysicists
that "all is well" in mainstream cometology, researchers have been
so baffled by unexpected discoveries that conventional comet theory
no longer exists!
"We have now had four close encounters with
comets, and every one of them has thrown astronomers onto their back
New Scientist, September 09, 2005
Yet comets are still touted as "Rosetta Stones" allowing us to
decipher the formation of the solar system. The "dirty snowball"
hypothesis, considered theoretical bedrock for decades, has failed
resoundingly at predicting comet behavior and, more recently, comet
The most dramatic surprises began in 1986 with the discovery of
negatively charged ions in the coma of Comet Halley, the signatures
of energetic electrical activity, and the absence of water on the
In subsequent years, comets have
produced a steady stream of "mysteries" that have left astronomers
groping for answers:
Highly energetic supersonic jets
exploding from comets' nuclei.
The inexplicable confinement of
these jets into narrow filaments, spanning great distances,
up to MILLIONS of miles, defying the behavior of neutral
gases in a vacuum.
Jets occurring on the dark sides
of comet nuclei.
Comet surfaces with sharply
carved relief - the exact opposite of what astronomers
expected under the "dirty snowball" model.
Unexpectedly high temperatures
and X-ray emissions from cometary comas.
A short supply or complete
absence of water and other volatiles on comets' nuclei.
Mounting evidence for the
production of the OH radical in cometary comas, due to
charge exchange with the Sun (the process that misled
astronomers into thinking they were seeing evidence of water
removed from the surface.)
Mineral particles that can only
be formed under extremely high temperatures - the last
thing one would expect from a chunk of dirty ice arriving
from the outermost reaches of the solar system.
Comets flaring up while in "deep
freeze," beyond the orbit of Saturn.
Comets disintegrating many
millions of miles from the Sun.
Comet dust particles more finely
and evenly divided than is plausible for sublimating "dirty
Ejection of larger particles and
"gravel" that was never anticipated under the idea that
comets accreted from primordial clouds of ice, gas, and
The unexplained ability of a
relatively minuscule comet nucleus to hold in place a highly
spherical coma, up to millions of miles in diameter, against
the force of the solar wind.
All the above findings pose enormous
problems for the "dirty snowball" model; all are predictable
features of the electric model. Nevertheless, the odds are pretty
good that you have never even HEARD of
the electric comet hypothesis
(although had you lived in the 19th century, when astrophysical
journals frequently discussed the electric properties of comets, you
This is because the space sciences
throughout most of the 20th century have been constructed on the
theoretical assumption that bodies in space are electrically
neutral. An electric comet would strike at the foundations of the
theoretical sciences today.
Electric Universe views comets as negatively charged bodies
moving through the radial electric field of the Sun, the most
positively charged object in the solar system. The most energetic cometary displays occur with comets that spend the most time in the
outer regions of the solar system, where they acquire a strongly
negative charge. As they race toward the Sun, moving into a more
positively charged environment, the nucleus will be subjected to
increasing electrical stresses, eventually beginning to discharge.
But what might occur with a shorter-period comet that does not move
on a highly elliptical orbit? It happens that presently, we are
witnessing an excellent example accompanied by many enigmas. In the
past two weeks, the Comet Holmes 17P has made international
headlines with an energetic outburst that has left astronomers
speechless. The website
skyandtelescope.com has called it
"the weirdest new object to appear in the sky in memory."
"For no apparent reason," the comet
began to increase in luminosity, rapidly brightening from 17th
magnitude to about 2.5 - approximately a million-fold increase in
brightness. This is the not the first such outburst by the comet -
its discoverer Edwin Holmes witnessed a similar brightening in 1892
followed by a second eruption 2-and-a-half months later.
In the span of a few days, the comet's coma grew to such an enormous
and bright disk that it could be seen with the naked eye, though it
never gets as close to the Sun as the planet Mars, and when it
suddenly erupted, it was moving AWAY from the Sun.
As the structure of the coma has clarified itself, jets have
appeared streaming away from the center. The source of the jets is
entirely enigmatic, if not preposterous through the lens of the
usual comet assumptions.
"This is truly a celestial
surprise"..."Absolutely amazing", said Paul Lewis, director of
astronomy outreach at the University of Tennessee.
The reason for astronomers' amazement is
that, given the comet's distance from the Sun, solar heating cannot
offer a plausible explanation for the eruption. Worse than that, it
has been moving AWAY from the Sun!
So now, astronomers trying to
explain these anomalies have begun grasping at straws. After a bit
of hair tearing, the most common speculation is that the source of
the outburst is "sinkholes" in the comet nucleus. But the trivial,
almost immeasurable, gravity of a comet could hardly justify this
"explanation" - no force is available to cause the surface to
The only other "explanation" could be that another object struck the
comet, a scenario that, by the astronomers' own estimates, is
If, however, cometary displays are almost exclusively due to
electrical stresses, the question remains as to why a comet moving
AWAY from the Sun might exhibit a sudden discharge. In the case of
Comet Holmes, one might suppose that neither the conventional view
of comets nor the electric hypothesis can explain what we're seeing.
But in fact, the electric view, based on new knowledge of the solar
system environment, does offer a plausible interpretation of Holmes'
In its most recent visitation, the comet Halley provided an
important clue. As it moved away from the Sun out beyond the orbit
of Saturn, Halley experienced a major eruption that not only remains
unexplained today, but seems to have conveniently slipped from
Other comets such as
Hale-Bopp began erupting
"prematurely," while still in the icy depths beyond Jupiter's orbit.
And numerous comets have exhibited unpredictable outbursts
exceedingly difficult to explain in terms of an evaporating chunk of
ice. And several comets have, quite unexpectedly, exploded into
When Comets Break Apart)
In electrical terms, such unpredictable behavior can be related to
the breakdown of the plasma sheath that forms around a charged body
in space. This behavior is well documented in the laboratory. A
plasma sheath insulates the charged body from the charge of the
surrounding plasma, and across the wall of the sheath, called a
"double layer," there is a strong electric field. But when that wall
breaks down, the result can be an explosive instability with
accompanying electric discharge. In other words, the charged body
may exhibit little unusual behavior until the breakdown occurs.
Such a breakdown can be provoked as one plasma sheath penetrates
into another. This phenomenon seen in the laboratory draws our
attention to the structure of the Sun's plasma environment and to
the unique plasma sheaths of the planets themselves. Wherever our
probes have taken us, we have found new levels of structure, all
with electrical implications. Within the "magnetosphere" of Venus,
astronomers were amazed to find coherent ropes or "stringy things."
The New Horizons probe found curious
cellular blobs moving down the vast plasma tail of Jupiter. The Sun
itself is immersed in plasma structure with boundaries and double
layers, a laboratory in space for intense investigation today.
So what might have happened to Comet Holmes? It is not a typical
The eccentricity of its orbit is minimal. It is always
outside the orbit of Mars and inside the orbit of Jupiter. In fact,
it is virtually as close to being an asteroid as it is to being a
comet. And astronomers are slowly realizing that the distinctions
between asteroids and comets are not as clear as they had once
Occasionally, asteroids sport cometary
tails, like the asteroid Chiron, which was seen to develop a tail
while orbiting between Saturn and Uranus around 1988 and 1989. It is
now officially classified as both an asteroid and a comet.
electrical stresses on Holmes would be minimal, much like those on
asteroids with modestly elliptical orbits, it is not unreasonable to
assume that its plasma sheath remains largely undisturbed - unless
it penetrates into or is penetrated by another sheath with
sufficient differential across its double layer to cause an
It's interesting to note that the diagram of Holmes' orbit shows
that it crossed the ecliptic (the plane of the planets movement
around the Sun) quite close to the time of its closest approach to
Mars. So it is certainly conceivable that Mars' own plasma sheath,
by penetrating that of Holmes, provoked the fateful breakdown.
Though this would not qualify as a coherent hypothesis today, it is
the kind of issue raised by the electric model that is
systematically ignored by mainstream astronomers.
As of this writing, the space science community has fallen virtually
mute on the enigma(s) of Comet Holmes. Comet science is in an
undeniable state of crisis, and nothing short of an intellectual
revolution will save officialdom from irredeemable embarrassment.
is the hope of the electric specialists that the failures of the
standard comet model, so nakedly obvious in the face of discovery,
will inspire astronomers and astrophysicists to reconsider the
real-world disciplines of electrodynamics and experimental plasma
science - disciplines that should never have been excluded in the
For a review of the electric comet, see