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Gerardus D. Bouw, Ph.D.




          In 1981 the University of Iowa was allowed to send three ultraviolet cameras in space on board the Dynamics Explorer-I spacecraft.  The purpose of the cameras was to study the northern and southern lights, the Aurora borealis and Aurora australis, and in particular the phenomenon where the aurora forms a complete ring around the magnetic pole.  The photos were widely circulated, and one even appeared on the cover of Geophysical Research Letters, as pictured here.  But the cameras also presented a puzzle.  Spots would appear, move, and disappear on the pictures, each of which took about half a minute to take.

          At first, it was thought that the spots were flaws in the equipment.  The cameras used pixels, so that each picture was made up of thousands of tiny squares.  Occasionally, one of the pixels might get a kick from a cosmic ray, or just get hit by Schott noise, that is, by random fluctuation of heat due to Brownian motion.  When questioned about these by other scientists, the team members would say that it was a flaw in the camera, or some noise introduced while the image was being transmitted to earth.  However, the spots were so persistent that graduate student John Sigwarth was commissioned to pin down their exact cause. 

          After four years of trying to force the spots to be artifacts of the system, the team leader, Louis A. Frank, could no longer evade the inevitable conclusion that these spots were not flaws in the equipment or in transmission; they were real.  “There were two choices available to us,” he wrote, “put the results into our desk drawers and lead a relatively peaceful life, or publish the results and suffer the criticism, and the sometimes extreme animosity of colleagues and previous friends.  [There] was only one choice with integrity in this matter, the work had to be submitted for publication.” 


Introducing the Small comets


The spots were not artifacts of the system.  That they were real was based on several evidences.  First, they were persistent.  A single spot could last for several minutes.  Second, they moved.  As the spacecraft orbited the earth, the spots would lag behind.  If they were due to flaws in the camera then they would stay in the same place on the frame and not lag behind the camera.  Indeed, most spots moved eastwards.  Third, they would grow in size.  Over the course of their lifetimes, some spots would expand, as if spreading out.  Fourth, the spots covered many, some over a hundred, pixels.  If the spots were due to instrumental failures in the camera, then only one picture element, i.e., one light-detection cell would be affected.  Candidate spots spanned multiple adjacent pixels.  Fifth, the spots, also called “atmospheric holes,” favored the late morning hours, which is also observed with meteors.  Sixth, as the spacecraft descended to lower altitudes, the holes became larger.  And finally, the frequency (or counts) of the spots was correlated with the seasons, which is also true of meteors observed in daylight by ground-based radar stations. 

The objects had to be high up in the atmosphere.  The cameras were designed to record in the ultraviolet (UV).  At the surface of the earth, we are protected from the eye-destroying UV rays, but up in space they serve to record the light from the aurora, as the crown around the earth in the first photo.  In that picture, the yellow is a false-color image of the ultraviolet light reflected from the sun by the upper atmosphere.  Anything that absorbs ultraviolet light and is located between that reflective surface of air and the spacecraft would show up as a dark spot.  It turns out that the most likely substance that would absorb light at that wavelength is water vapor.  So the spots are due to a cloud of water vapor some 25-30 miles in diameter in the upper atmosphere.

The observations showed that the amount of water needed to make one of the atmospheric holes fell in the range of 30 to 40 tons (~2 x 107 g).  If this much water were balled up into a snowball, the snowball would be about forty feet in diameter, about the size of a moderately sized house (about 12 yards or meters in diameter).  The typical snowball approaches the earth at about 35,000 miles per hour or ten miles per second (56,000 km/hour or 16 km/sec).  At about 800 miles above the surface of the earth the snowball is disrupted and spreads out like a pancake.  It rapidly expands until it is some tens of miles in diameter, large enough to be detected by the camera.  The water from the cloud is deposited on the earth’s surface as a gentle mist.

The first word that comes to an astronomer’s mind when encountering with such a scenario is “Comet!”  Now a comet is like an icy mud-ball, made up of dust and grit and ice.  If these snowballs are small comets, then the dust and grit should also be present, but they are not.  These objects are not typical comets.  They may have a small amount of dust, but for the most part, they consist of water.  To dub them “small comets” is thus slightly misleading, but for lack of a better word, we will persist, though some have suggested “cometissimals.”


Small comets? Bah! Humbug!


          Now astronomers are fairly open-minded about such things as snowballs from space.  They can tolerate an occasional one or two.  Even ten a year is acceptable; but ten million small comets hitting the atmosphere per year?  Impossible!  Why, half the science textbooks in the world would have to be rewritten.  Thousands of scientists in many disciplines objected, each one certain it was an error.[1]  And so the small comet controversy settled down as the scientific community convinced themselves that the holes were merely camera noise. 

Actually, it was a period of relatively little activity.  To prove the reality of the small comets, another set of auroral cameras was built at the University of Iowa for the Polar spacecraft.  The ability to detect both holes and small comets was specifically built into the cameras.  If atmospheric holes were real, these cameras would leave no doubt.


Small comets confirmed!


Besides their ability to detect the holes, one important capability of the new cameras was that they could detect the passage of the comets as they crashed through the atmosphere.  The comets would leave a glowing oxygen trail behind them as they disrupted.  This, the cameras could observe thousands of miles above the earth.  The cameras could also optically detect fragments of the comets as they descended.

The Polar spacecraft was launched in early 1996, and as soon as the cameras were calibrated and started, the holes were detected.  Again the team took their time confirming and reconfirming their findings.  In May 1997, they released their findings at a NASA press conference.  Below are some of the photos taken by the Polar satellite confirming the small comets.  Interestingly, even with its higher resolution of totally different cameras, the Polar satellite observed the same flux in incoming objects as was detected by Dynamics Explorer I.

          The figure above shows a cloud over Poland.  It was recorded April 6, 1996.  It is an ultraviolet image.  The figure below at left is a map of the earth superimposed under an image of a bright trail of atomic oxygen.  It, too, is an ultraviolet image with a computer-generated map behind it.  This particular comet burst at a much higher altitude than most.  The path moved from over the Atlantic Ocean, ending over eastern Germany.

          The third camera looked at the ultraviolet spectrum nearer to the visible spectrum.  It observed in a portion of the spectrum used for the study of large comets.  The detected light is emitted when sunlight separates a hydrogen atom from its oxygen atom in a water molecule.  The picture on the right is a photo of Hale-Bopp as it approached the sun.  The upper picture shows the comet in the fragmented water spectrum just mentioned while the lower shows it in light emitted by sodium and dust.  This proves the Polar cameras are capable of seeing comets.

          When the cameras were tuned to view the small comets which were hitting the earth’s upper atmosphere.  The cameras yielded a sequence of three exposures such as the one shown above.  A surprising result was the absence of sodium and dust in the small comets.  This explained why they had no bright tails, which would make them easier to detect.  Sodium and dust would yield bright impacts.  Thus the small comets differ significantly in composition from the large comets.

 Ground-based detection


          But the evidence does not stop there.  So far all the detection has been by from satellites in space.  From October 1998 through May 1999, the Idaho Robotic Observatory in Arizona was used in a quest to see the holes from the ground.  Preliminary searches were conducted a decade earlier by Clane Yeates of JPL.  Yeates was a doubter but he did detect the comets from the ground.  Skeptics then demanded two pictures of each comet to show it persisted in time.  When Yeates was successful in that, they demanded a three-image sequence. 

The new survey took two images of each comet on the same plate.  The shutter makes a double exposure.  Below is a double-image multiple exposure taken by the ground camera.  The left image is a negative, and the black streak at the bottom is a star trail.  (The camera was fixed to the earth and not following the stars in their courses since the comet in the atmosphere would not follow the stars either.)  The two images are made by keeping the shutter open for several second, then closing the shutter for a few seconds and the reopening it for a shorter duration than the first.  The diagram at right of the photographic image is a detailed sketch of the two parts of the trail.  It shows how many pixels are involved in producing the image (81 for the short, second exposure and 146 for the first, longer exposure).  The mottled appearance in the left picture is due to camera noise.  After the two parts of the comet’s trail are photographed, the film is advanced for the next two exposures.


Wouldn’t they hit the earth?


          So the small comets have been detected from space and from the ground.  Should not some of their cores crash to earth, especially large, icy ones?  It turns out that there is evidence that some do hit the earth.

          For years Chinese peasants have reported finding icy blocks in their fields.  The blocks may be jagged or spherical and have a strange color.  The earliest report of an icefall in Europe comes from England:  A man left a pub and was almost hit by a block of ice falling from a clear night sky.  It was dismissed as “too much to drink.”  That was in the eighteenth century.  The ice falls are usually dismissed as blocks falling from air liners, and, indeed, their holding tanks do have a “blue juice” preservative in them, which explains the color.  But the Chinese accounts are not along major airways, and there were no airliners in the eighteenth century. 

          Some years ago a block of ice fell from the sky in Europe.  Blue in color, it was dismissed as an icefall from a jet liner.[2]  The incident caught the attention of Europeans and reports of icefalls multiplied.  Some of the blocks were placed in freezers and were analyzed by experts.  Some were deemed to come from airplanes, but some were “not ordinary water.”

          What is “ordinary water?”  A water molecule is made up of three atoms: one oxygen and two hydrogen.  Now hydrogen comes in three forms.  The basic form has one proton in the nucleus and one electron surrounding the proton.  But in addition to the proton, the nucleus can also have a neutron.  When the hydrogen nucleus consists of a proton and a neutron, it is called “Deuterium.”  It is also possible for the nucleus to have two neutrons in addition to the proton.  In that case it is called “Tritium.”  For terrestrial water the ratios of deuterium to normal hydrogen and tritium to normal hydrogen are consistently the same.  So when a study says it is not normal water, it means that the amount of deuterium (or tritium) is different than expected from a terrestrial sample.  The ratio has also been determined for comets and found to be different from the terrestrial sample, also.  This is a major impediment to the evolutionary theory that says that the water for the earth’s oceans came from a rain of comets hitting the dry earth billions of years ago.[3]  There are other problems with the theories for the origin of the ocean, but we cannot go into those now.  The ratios for the small comets is not known, though one might expect it to be the same as for large comets if they both originate from the Oort cloud or Kuiper Belt. 

          Since the large comets were apparently not the source of the earth’s oceans, could the small comets provide enough water?  The observed rate would raise the ocean levels about one inch (25 mm) every 10,000 years.  At that rate Frank estimates it would take two to three billion (109) years to fill the ocean. 


Impact on the terrestrial planets


          What about the effect on other planets?  Would not the small comets supply water to them?  The numbers show that these small comets would boil away at a distance from the sun about two-thirds of the sun-earth distance.  That means that Venus is too close to the sun to receive water from the small comets.  Ditto for Mercury.

          The moon is further from the sun, so there should be water on the moon from these small comets.  But the moon’s gravity is not strong enough to hold the water vapor, so the moon would remain dry except in very cold regions where the snow might have a chance to refreeze before escaping.  Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that there may be water locked in deep craters right at the moon’s north and south poles.[4]  Whether or not these are due to the infall of small watery comets is up in the air.  Indeed, whether or not the water is there is subject to doubt.[5] 

          Mars is a most interesting case.  The orbiters over the last several decades have presented evidence for water on Mars.  River valleys, hilly forms suggesting glacier-caused drumlins, water vapor in the atmosphere and water on the polar ice caps all suggest that Mars still has water and may have had more in the past.  The number of small comets incident on Mars is expected to be about the same number per unit area as at the earth.  Computations show that if Mars gets too much water it may be subject to a run-away greenhouse effect.

          Most people have heard of the myth that the increase of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere will cause global warming and that if there is too much, we will get a runaway greenhouse effect and the earth will get as hot and dry as Venus.  But this is a myth, at least as far as carbon dioxide is concerned.[6]  According to theoretical calculations, the real culprit is water vapor.  On Mars, the situation is such that water can build up and heat up the atmosphere.  At some point the water vapor pressure reaches a critical point and the vapor explodes into space.   It is assumed that the water would build up and reach the critical point again every several tens of millions of years, but that is speculative.  It provides us with a means by which a 6,000-year old Mars could have supported and lost its water.  Perhaps its water contributed to Noah’s flood, but that is speculative


From whence the small comets?


          Dr. Frank believes that the small comets come from the Oort cloud, a shell of icy mud-balls postulated to exist around the sun at a distance ranging from about 300 to 100,000 a.u.[7] He believes that there is a faint, undetected star located in the cloud.  That star, called the “Dark Star,” would disturb comets in the Oort cloud and send some of them to the inner solar system where we see them as long-period comets.  The Oort cloud is a working hypothesis, there is no direct evidence for its existence.  It was invented in 1950 by Dutch astronomer Jan Oort to explain the presence of long-period comets.  Without the cloud, there should be no long-period comets if the solar system is billions of years old.  We cannot elaborate on this here.

          Frank’s speculation is doubtful, for no one has yet computed an orbit for a small comet.  To do that, two or more satellites would have to detect and chart the oxygen trail of the same impact (e.g., figure on the bottom of page 84).  Over the years we have learned that the number of small comets hitting the earth varies with the seasons.  Indeed, the comet flux correlates with that of meteors, excluding meteor showers.  This is shown on the figure on the next page.  The top chart plots the number of holes per minute observed by Dynamics Explorer I from the region of the sky bounded by solar-ecliptic latitudes 30° to 90° and longitudes 285° to 315° from November 1981 through January 1982.  This covers an area of 4.3 million square miles (1.1 x 107 km2).  The bottom chart shows the radar-determined meteor flux detected from Ottawa for the same months in 1955 and 1956.  The meteor counts for the showers (Taurids, Leonids, Geminids, etc.) are shown as open circles.  The closed circles are for background meteors, that is, those not identified with a shower. 

The third part of the figure is on the facing page (91) which shows the flux measured in counts per pixel from the Polar satellite observed from November 1997 through January 1998.  The interval marked “No Data” from November 6-7 was because of a solar proton storm.  Here, as with the Dynamics Explorer satellite’s counts, we see a maximum in early November and a minimum in mid-January.  Though the minimum is correlated with the meteor counts, the maximum is not.  This is an important clue to the origin of the small comets. 

          The counts were also correlated with the height of the satellite above the earth.  The maximum occurred at about three earth radii (3RÅ).  Above that the counts decreased as the angular diameter of the holes fell below the selection criteria.  Also at higher altitudes the noise from energetic electrons increased as the satellite moved deeper into the earth’s radiation belts.  Below 3RÅ, the counts decreased because the satellite saw progressively less of the earth as its altitude decreased. 



Small comets and the Flood


          So far we have not said but one thing about the title of this paper: “Small Comets and the Flood.”  Of course, we have had to establish the evidence for the existence of small comets and we looked at several characteristics.  For their existence, we found that they were discovered by satellite, but that they have also been observed from the ground by specially-designed cameras.  We also found that cores may have struck the ground.  For their characteristics we noted their size, mass, frequency of occurrence, and evidence for their orbital properties.  In connection with that we here note that the plane of their orbit seems to be inclined about thirty degrees to the plane of the ecliptic.

          First, let us consider how many small comets it would take to amount to the ocean.  In his 1951 paper on the earth’s water resources, William Rubey estimated the mass of water on the earth, including the biosphere and atmosphere to be 1,660,000 trillion (1012) tons.  That figure included 210,000 trillion tons trapped in rocks, which, if we subtract that water from the total, leaves us with 1,460,000 trillion tons of free water, most of it in the oceans.  Given that each small comet weighs in at 20 tons, 73,000 trillion small comets are needed to make up the water in the oceans.  At the current rate of 10 million comets per year, it would take 7.3 billion years to fill the oceans, too long for the 4.5 billion years that the evolutionist demands, and longer than Frank’s estimate note on p. 88.  Still, one can reasonably postulate that the influx of small comets was greater in the past.

          We will not enter in here with a debate about Noah’s Flood.  We take it as a given that the flood covered all the earth (Gen. 7:19-20).  We know that there were two sources of water, the fountains of the great deep and the windows of heaven (Gen. 7:11).  Generally speaking, the fountains of the great deep are interpreted to mean subterranean water and the windows of heaven regular rainfall.  But there is a problem with that. 

For the waters to cover the highest mountains of the earth by fifteen cubits (about 22 feet or seven meters), a great deal of water is necessary.  Indeed, so much water is necessary that some creationists have postulated that there was once a canopy surrounding the earth.  Made variously of water, ice, or vapor, the canopy is said to collapse and that is equated to the “windows of heaven.”  That then leaves the problem of where the water went after the Flood.  The Bible says it went into the earth; it does not say that the water returned through the windows of heaven.  (Gen. 8:3.)  It is clear to Creationists who hold to the splitting of the continents in Peleg’s day[8] that the tallest mountains today (Mt. Everest and the mountains of Nepal, the ranges from Alaska to the Andes, etc.) were caused by continental drift.  The highest mountains that are not obviously formed by plate tectonics include Ararat (16,945 ft. or 5168 m) and Kilimanjaro (19,340 ft. or 5,899 m).  But Ararat, at least, shows that it was below sea level before it was raised up by strata containing marine fossils, and I recall something similar of Kilimanjaro.  Hence we may conclude that the mountains before and during the flood were lower than these. 

For an optimum climate in the pre-Flood days, mountains are expected to be under about 3,000 feet in height.  That is somewhat less than 121 million cubic miles of water (420 million km3).  To raise the water level by 3,000 feet in 40 days would require an average rainfall of more than three feet (1 m) per hour.  The water would rise more quickly at first and then decrease in its rate as more and more land was inundated.

Is it possible that when the windows of heaven were opened that the water arrived in the form of such small comets?  Yes, it is possible.  Various peoples have a tradition that the Flood started in the fall of the year.  Small comets also have the advantage that they would arrive in the form of rain, and not as catastrophic impacts such as Tunguska, which destroyed thousands of square miles in a single cometary fall.  It does not seem likely from the description in Scripture that these comets started out from the creation of the solar system.  I suppose it is possible that the windows of heaven were opened 120 years earlier and that the comets were started more than the distance of Uranus from earth, but that is speculation.  We really don’t know.  A straightforward reading of Scripture implies that the waters originated from above the firmament.  As for the watery comets, well, we won’t know anything for certain until their deuterium and tritium ratios can be determined.


Pictures from: http://smallcomets.physics.uiowa.edu/


[1] For instance, see Panorama, 1998.  “More about the watery comets,” B.A., 8(84):19.

[2] The author’s son has worked in “lav and water” at Cleveland International Airport and has encountered the ice in the drains, but he reports that it is almost impossible for large chunks of ice to form during flight.  Aircraft do not dump their sewage in flight, even if they did, the impact with air would form a spray, not a solid.

[3] Some scientists such as the late Carl Sagan believe that those comets brought life to earth in the form of organic molecules.  However, large comets would burn up like meteors and hit with violence, which would destroy any organic molecules they may bear to earth. 

[4] Panorama, 1998.  “Ice on the moon,” B.A., 8(85):23.

[5] Panorama, 1999.  “No water ice on the moon?” B.A., 9(90):24.

[6] Bouw, G. D., 2001.  “The morning stars,” B.A., 11(97):69.

[7] One astronomical unit (a.u., also commonly contracted to AU) is the earth-sun distance of 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers.

[8] Gen. 10:25, And unto Eber were born two sons: the name of one was Peleg; for in his days was the earth divided.