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Release: Immediate

Frank submits $60 million NASA proposal to study his small comet theory

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- University of Iowa Space Physicist Louis Frank has submitted a $60 million proposal for NASA to fund a mission to further investigate his small comet theory. In May, Frank presented researchers at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union with a series of photographs taken by cameras aboard NASA's Polar spacecraft as proof of his 11-year-old theory that thousands of 20-to-40-ton ice comets disintegrate in the Earth's atmosphere each day, providing enough water, over the age of the Earth, to fill the oceans and perhaps plant the seeds of life.

If funded, his proposal would be one of the largest single projects ever undertaken by a University of Iowa researcher. Frank says that the project, nicknamed "Cyclops," is necessary because his small comet theory has implications for nearly all aspects of human existence.

"The Polar spacecraft images show that we have a large population of previously undetected objects in the Earth's vicinity," he says. "This relatively gentle cosmic rain and its possible simple organic compounds may well have nurtured the development of life on our planet."

"With Cyclops, we'll intercept several small comets with cameras mounted on a spacecraft in a circular orbit at an altitude of about 600 miles. Our first mission must be to go up and observe the amount of water coming into the atmosphere and identify several simple organic molecules contained in the small comets," says Frank, who, along with UI Senior Researcher John Sigwarth co-discovered the small comets and designed the cameras aboard the Polar spacecraft.

Cyclops is named for its large camera eye which continually searches for the arrival of a small comet's water cloud just above Earth's atmosphere. Upon detection of the cometary cloud, two cameras are activated to provide movies of the objects at different wavelengths.

Frank developed his small comet theory in 1986 after some of the photographs taken by NASA's Dynamics Explorer 1, a spacecraft designed to take pictures of the northern lights, contained unexplained dark spots. After eliminating other explanations, Frank concluded that the spots represented clouds of water vapor being released high above Earth's atmosphere by the disintegration of small ice comets. He noted that their small size -- 20-to-30-feet in diameter -- and faint glow made observation difficult. Not until the 1996 launch of Polar, with its two sensitive visible light cameras and one far-ultraviolet light camera, was there a chance to photograph the small comets with greater resolution.

Co-investigators named in the proposal are: Ralph C. Bohlin of the Space Telescope Science Institute; Charles M. Brown, George R. Carruthers and Robert R. Meier of the Naval Research Laboratory; Michael R. Combi and Thomas M. Donohue of the University of Michigan; Paul D. Feldman of Johns Hopkins University; and Sigwarth of the University of Iowa.