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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 itself.

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 the finding.

"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.)

5/23/97