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Jul 07, 2005
The Meaning of Deep Impact

In the wake of “Deep Impact” and a flurry of journalistic excitement around the world, perhaps a bit of reflection is now in order. What can the event tell us about the state of science today?

The preparation, technical execution, and scientific perspectives displayed in the Deep Impact mission all carry important messages.

One clear message is that America’s technical expertise can achieve wonders. The team of specialists involved in the design and manufacture of the Deep Impact hardware orchestrated an awe-inspiring performance. What we saw was far and away the most daring and dramatic probe ever designed for the exploration of comets.

And what about the perceptions of the space scientists commenting on the great surprises of Deep Impact? We have spoken often of the momentum of belief and the way ideology constrains and distorts perception. All of the media commentary surrounding Deep Impact, by virtue of its dependence on NASA for context, has underscored this syndrome.

Every journalist and commentator assured us that comets harbor the pristine material from which the Sun and planets were born. They even gave a date for the primordial birth of comets—4.5 billion years ago. Was it really 4.5 billion years ago? No, some said it was 4.6 billion years ago. Well, how did they arrive at such extraordinary knowledge? They delivered their descriptions and dating of comets because NASA scientists gave these “facts” to them. So how did NASA scientists know these things? The answer is that they have never known these things. These “facts” are mere guesses, and they are no longer intelligent guesses because they are rooted in archaic science from before the space age. The picture has changed completely with the discovery of plasma and electricity in space. But somehow, due to the nature of education and research funding today, the original guesses were permitted to harden into ideology.

Consider this. Even in the face of one of the great shocks in space exploration—the stupendous blast produced by the “impact”—it appears that not one NASA scientist paused to ask if something might be missing in their theoretical model. All of the talk about the hugely energetic blast implies that it was just an astonishing effect from the sheer force of the impact. Every word was framed in the context of an electrically inert universe. That’s what astronomers and astrophysicists were trained in. Yet for several decades scientists and engineers at the NASA Ames research facility in California have been firing projectiles into objects of every sort—from sand and ice to a host of other inert materials.

The Ames vertical gun hurls projectiles up to almost four miles per second (seven kilometers per second). These scientists know the kinetics of impact. That is why they all agreed that the explosion would be equivalent to 4.8 tons of TNT. That’s a good-sized bomb, but it’s not even close to what occurred.

It is now well documented that every scientist associated with the project was stunned by the energetic outburst.

Science progresses by the quality of its predictions. When every new discovery comes as a surprise, this is the best indicator that something is wrong at the level of theoretical underpinnings. Correspondingly, when independent investigators offer a new vantage point, one that challenges the expectations of prior theory and successfully anticipates the “surprises” to come, it is neither rational nor “scientific” to ignore them.

In these pages we predicted a much more energetic blast than NASA anticipated because NASA had no interest in the contribution of energy from the charged comet.

Electrical theorist Wallace Thornhill predicted two blasts. From the standard viewpoint that is an absurd prediction when considering an impactor being hit by a body at 23,000 miles per hour in “empty” space. But this is what makes such predictions so valuable. And here is what happened in the words of NASA investigator Peter Schultz, describing the event recorded from the spacecraft:

"What you see is something really surprising. First, there is a small flash, then there's a delay, then there's a big flash and the whole thing breaks loose”.

How, then, will NASA respond? Will they wonder if anyone predicted such a thing? Or will they stay in their comfort zone—within the walls of prior ideology—and reach for the nearest fantasy? The “explanation” they initially offered is mathematically inconceivable. They proposed that the impactor moved through a deep layer of soft material before hitting hard material. But the delay would require the impactor to have penetrated something like a mile beneath the surface before causing the “serious” impact event. From such an answer you would think someone dreamt up a mile of fluff for a surface, never actually looking at the sharply-defined features of the nucleus. All of the features suggest a hard surface, and observations to this effect have already come in from the SWIFT satellite.

The logical answer to the conundrum is that the first flash occurred before impact. It was a discharge between the impactor and the surface—a precursor to the much greater exchange occurring microseconds later with the first physical contact.

But NASA has little interest in electricity. It is under financial strain. And it is under pressure to validate its approach to space exploration. Those who advocate an electrical view of the heavens insist that NASA is wasting a horde of money, looking in the wrong places, asking the wrong questions, and even when results shout to them from the surfaces of planets, moons, asteroids, and comets, the minds of the investigators are somewhere else. We are certainly not happy to report that this is the state of things within the official halls of science, but the media events surrounding Deep Impact have already confirmed this picture.

NEXT: Tempel 1: Surface Etching in Action


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

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