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Release: March 1, 2001
UI researcher finds new evidence for small comet theory
IOWA CITY, Iowa - In a paper published in the March 1, 2001 issue
of the American Geophysical Union's Journal of Geophysical Research, University
of Iowa physics professor Louis A. Frank says that he has found new evidence
to support his theory that the water in Earth's oceans arrived by way of small
Frank reports that he obtained pictures of nine small comets among 1,500
images made between October 1998 and May 1999 using the Iowa Robotic Observatory
(IRO) located near Sonoita, Ariz. In addition, he says that the possibility
of the images being due to "noise," or electronic interference,
on the telescope's video screens was eliminated by operating the telescope
in such a manner as to ensure that real objects were recorded in the images.
This operation of the telescope utilized two simple exposure modes for the
acquisition of the images. One scheme used the telescope's shutter to provide
two trails of the same small comet in a single image, and the second scheme
used the same shutter to yield three trails in an image.
"In the two-trail mode for the telescope's camera, no events were seen
with three trails, and for the three-trail mode, no events were seen with
two trails," he says. "This simple shutter operation
for the telescope's camera provides full assurance that real extraterrestrial
objects are being detected." Frank notes these images with the IRO confirm
earlier reports of small comet detection
using the ground-based Spacewatch Telescope during November 1987, January
1988 and April 1988.
The small comet theory, developed in 1986 with UI research scientist John
Sigwarth from data gathered using the Dynamics Explorer 1 satellite, holds
that about 20 snow comets weighing 20 to 40 tons each disintegrate in the
Earth's atmosphere every minute. Over the lifetime of our planet, the comets
would have accounted for virtually all of the Earth's water. The small comet
theory has been controversial almost from the beginning, with some scientists
suggesting that images identified as small snow comets actually result from
electronic noise on satellite sensors and other researchers asserting that
the images represent a real phenomenon. In 1997, Frank revealed a series of
photographs taken by Visible Imaging System (VIS ) cameras designed by Frank
and Sigwarth and carried aboard NASA's Polar spacecraft as further proof of
the existence of the small snow comets.
Robert A. Hoffman, senior scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center,
Greenbelt, Md. and project scientist for both the Dynamics Explorer 1 and
the Polar spacecraft missions, says that because satellite-based imagery related
to the small comet theory has been interpreted in different ways, ground-based
imagery is a good alternative.
"Due to the controversy surrounding the interpretation of the images
from space-borne detectors taken primarily in ultraviolet wavelengths, ground-based
visible observations with sufficient signal-to-noise appear to be the most
practical approach to obtaining clear evidence regarding the existence of
these objects. I hope more such studies will be performed," Hoffman says.
Frank, a UI faculty member since 1964, has been an experimenter, co-investigator,
or principal investigator for instruments on 42 spacecraft. His instruments
include those used to observe the Earth's auroras, as well as those used to
measure energetic charged particles and thin, electrically charged gases called
plasmas. He is a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union and the American
Physical Society, a member of the American Astronomical Society, American
Association for the Advancement of Science and the International Academy of
Astronautics, and a recipient of the National Space Act Award.
Further information, including images of two small comet trails, can be
found at the following web site: http://smallcomets.physics.uiowa.edu/iro/.
(Note to editors and reporters: Frank will be traveling out of the country
from Feb. 26 through March 3 and will be unavailable for interviews during