CONTACT: GARY GALLUZZO
100 Old Public Library
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 384-0009; fax (319) 384-0024
Release: EMBARGOED FOR: 10 a.m. EDT, Wednesday, May 28, 1997
UI's Louis Frank presents proof for revolutionary small comet theory
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- University of Iowa Space Physicist Louis Frank today,
May 28, presented 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 the
water that fills the Earth's oceans and perhaps bearing the seeds of life
Frank, an internationally known researcher and Fellow of the American
Geophysical Union (AGU) and American Physical Society, released the photographs
at a news conference prior to making a scientific presentation at the AGU's
annual spring meeting in Baltimore. The photographs range from a picture
of a small comet the size of a two-bedroom house disintegrating some 5,000
to 15,000 miles above the Atlantic Ocean to an image of light emitted by
the breakup of water molecules from a small comet less that 2,000 miles
above the Earth. Frank, who along with UI Senior Researcher John Sigwarth
co-discovered the small comets and designed the three Visible Imaging System
(VIS ) cameras aboard the Polar spacecraft, says the pictures prove the
existence of the small ice comets and speculated on the significance of
"These images show that we have a large population of objects in
the Earth's vicinity that have not been detected before," he says.
"This relatively gentle cosmic rain and its possible simple organic
compounds may well have nurtured the development of life on our planet."
Frank first announced his small comet theory in 1986 after examining
images recorded in photographs taken by NASA's Dynamics Explorer 1 spacecraft.
A specially-made camera had been designed to take pictures of the northern
lights, a mission it completed successfully when it captured the first
images of the complete ring of the northern lights from above the north
pole. But some of the images contained unexplained dark spots. After
eliminating the possibility of equipment malfunction and numerous 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 calculated that about 20 comets enter the atmosphere each minute,
but even at that rate, the steady stream of comets would have added about
one inch of water to the Earth's oceans every ten thousand years -- enough
to fill the oceans over billions of years. The theory was immediately
controversial, with people asking why such objects hadn't been observed
previously. Frank countered that not only their small size -- 20-to-30-feet
in diameter -- makes observation difficult, but also that water striking
the upper atmosphere glows very faintly as compared to the bright glow
of metal and rock in solid meteors.
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.
Says Frank: "The theory was evaluated by people and originally
given a one-in-ten-thousand chance, at best. These pictures show that
the dark spots in the photographs are small ice comets disintegrating above
the Earth's atmosphere.
"The pictures themselves are a tremendous technical achievement.
But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
(For further information, see the small comets web site at: http://smallcomets.physics.uiowa.edu.)