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Infrared image of Holmes 17P. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Oct 22, 2008

Cometary Filaments

The Spitzer Space Telescope has returned remarkable images of Comet Holmes 17P, revealing structures that appear to confirm the electrical nature of comets.

An October 2007 Picture of the Day described the behavior of Holmes 17P and noted that many of the observed phenomena could be explained by an electrical theory of comets. Since these pages were first published, Electric Universe theorists have challenged the prevailing "dusty snowball" cometary theory. Comets becoming active at long distances from the Sun—sometimes as far out as Neptune's orbit—contradict the idea of a frozen ball of ice that only grows a tail or emits jets of gas when it gets close enough for the Sun's heat to sublimate its surface.

Hale-Bopp, a naked-eye comet that hung for weeks like an exclamation mark in the 1997 sky, was still active four years after it left the inner solar system. When it was farther from the Sun than the orbit of Uranus it was almost two million kilometers in diameter. It displayed a coma, a dust tail, and an ion tail more than a million kilometers long. Solar radiation will not melt ice at that distance, otherwise the moons of Saturn and Jupiter would be bone dry, so astronomers were unable to explain it.

In August of 2007, Comet Linear broke apart during its closest approach to the Sun. When the cloud of debris was analyzed, astronomers were surprised to find that it contained about 100 times more rocky material than ice.

The European Space Agency's Giotto probe met Halley's Comet on March 16, 1996. Among several discoveries, the comet was found to be covered with a black crust. Bright jets of ionized gas, or plasma, blasted out from its surface in three highly localized areas. Water was present in Halley's coma, but according to Horst Uwe Keller of the Max Planck Institut für Aeronomie: "We discovered that a comet is not really a 'dirty snowball' since dirt is dominant, not ice. Instead of being spherical like a warm snowball, a comet nucleus is elongated. The physical structure of a comet's interior is defined by its dust content rather than its ice content."

Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 fragmented into several large pieces that plunged into Jupiter's atmosphere during the summer of 1994. It was hoped that the remnants of the fractured nucleus would expose fresh ices that would then sublimate. Spectrographic results from the Hubble Space Telescope showed no evidence for volatile gases in the debris clouds around the fragments. Auroral emissions were also detected in the atmosphere of Jupiter after the impact of fragment K, something that was unexpected and then attributed to "snowplow" effects as shock waves pushed the atmosphere aside.

Now, with the latest news release from Spitzer about Holmes 17P, scientists are again confounded by the workings of comets. "The data we got from Spitzer do not look like anything we typically see when looking at comets," said Bill Reach of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at Caltech.  

What are called "streamers" have been found inside the shell of gas and dust that makes up the haze around the comet's nucleus. Spitzer team members have not yet determined why the twisted threads of material continue to point in the same direction. They remain in the same alignment as they had since their initial formation. Despite several months of travel, they have not rotated to stay aligned with the Sun. As has been discussed in previous Picture of the Day articles, the braided filaments are the sign of helical Birkeland currents.

Outbursts like those on Holmes 17P are how Electric Universe theorists expect comet tails to be produced. Because electric discharges are capable of removing solid material from surfaces, no volatile gases exploding out of "trapped pockets," then pushed away by radiation pressure, are necessary. A comet will produce a tail when electrical stress reaches a critical point and its plasma sheath starts to glow. Irrespective of its composition, a comet will obey the fundamental behavior of charged objects interacting with one another.

A comet's tail is created when its electric charge is struck by solar discharge plasma, conventionally called the "solar wind." As a comet approaches the Sun, its nucleus moves through envelopes of increased charge density. Its surface charge and internal polarization, developed in deep space, respond to the Sun's charged environment, changing its electrical potential.

As it moves away from the Sun, a comet's electrical balance with respect to the outer solar system will be different than when it was on its inward trajectory. If it meets another electrified plasma field of some kind it could begin to discharge again. What more electrically dynamic region than the one that exists around the gas giant planets?

Recent revelations about comets are more easily understood within the electric comet theory than within theories that depend on gravity and sublimation. The black, burned nuclei; the craters and rocky landscapes instead of ice fields; the narrow, energetic jets; the ion tails pointing toward the Sun; the sulfur compounds that require high temperatures to form; and the abundance of ultra-fine dust all point to electricity as their common source. Most important of all, water vapor is more prevalent farther away from the nucleus than close in—surely the exact opposite of what should be found if water ice and frost are what drive cometary jets.

The faster a comet's electrical environment changes, the more likely that flaring and fragmentation will occur. It seems probable that Holmes 17P is traveling through conductive strands of plasma that are energizing it enough for its "shell" to enter a glow-mode discharge state. The filamentary steamers are significant evidence for that contention.

By Stephen Smith


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The Electric Sky and The Electric Universe available now!


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  EXECUTIVE EDITORS: David Talbott, Wallace Thornhill
Steve Smith, Mel Acheson
  CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Michael Armstrong, Dwardu Cardona,
Ev Cochrane, C.J. Ransom, Don Scott, Rens van der Sluijs, Ian Tresman
  WEBMASTER: Brian Talbott

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