Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 Disintegrates
(Note: TPOD originally ran on May 05, 2006)
is happening for "no apparent reasons", scientists say, but
the comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 has been rapidly breaking
apart, provoking another round of second-guessing by
above, captured by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, are the
best pictures yet of an event that has astronomers
scratching their heads. The comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 3,
otherwise known as Comet 73P, is disintegrating in front of
their eyes. But what is the cause of this extraordinary
event? Not one of the theoretical surmises offered so far
has satisfied the community of astronomers as a whole. From
all standard vantage points such an event presents
inherent—some would say insurmountable—dilemmas.
Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, first observed in 1930 and named
after its two German discoverers, completes an orbit every
5.4 years. Following its discovery it was little more than
a footnote in comet science until 1995. The first appearance
of the comet that year was so bright that astronomers hailed
it as a new
comet. But as it turned out, the "newcomer" was
Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, presenting itself in more glorious
dress than ever before, despite the fact that conditions
were not favorable. It was 150 million miles away, but
shining hundreds of times more brightly than expected.
1996 astronomers discovered that the comet had fragmented
into at least three pieces, an occurrence clearly linked to
the spectacular brightening, though no one could say what
caused the event. It also appeared as if one or more of the
pieces was breaking into secondary fragments.
comet returned in 2000 it was again brighter than expected,
with indications that the disintegration was continuing—or
even accelerating. And now, with its most recent
appearance, the best Hubble images show dozens of fragments,
suggesting the possibility of complete dissolution in a
single remaining passage around the Sun.
the "explanations" proposed for the comet's catastrophic
fate can only diminish confidence in today's comet science.
Even in the face of falsifying discoveries, the specialists
appear unwilling to reconsider their theoretical starting
point. One astronomer, from the Sydney Observatory, offered
this explanation of the comet's fragmentation: "It's like
pouring hot coffee into a glass that's been in the fridge.
The glass shatters from the shock". But there is no
rational comparison of the two phenomena. Any explanation by
resort to "thermal stress" must provide for heat transfer
rapidly through thousands of feet of insulating material,
something inconceivable even if you ignore the deep freeze
of the vacuum through which the comet is moving, with its
sunward face continually changing due to rotation.
astronomer, from University of Western Ontario, suggested,
"The most likely explanation is thermal stress, with the icy
nucleus cracking like an ice cube dropped into hot soup".
All that this "explanation" requires is a little home
experiment. The ice cube will not shatter
explosively, or any way display effects comparable to the
disintegration of Schwassmann- Wachmann 3—not even if
dropped into boiling water. It will melt. And no
matter what a comet is composed of, the heat transfer the
"theory" implies for a mile-wide solid object is
beyond all reason.
to citing possible "thermal stresses", the Hubble Space
Telescope website offers other possibilities as to why
disintegrate so explosively—"They
can also fly apart from rapid rotation of the nucleus, or
explosively pop apart like corks from champagne bottles due
to the outburst of trapped volatile gases". But the
centrifugal forces acting on comet nuclei are close to zero.
And to posit heating in the middle of a mile-wide dirty
ice cube is, again, scientifically indefensible.
then, Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 "was shattered by a hit from a
small interplanetary boulder?" offered one of the
astronomers quoted above.
that a series of one-in-a-trillion hits", mused a critic of
today's comet science. "That way we can explain the
continuing fragmentation over years".
Comet science is indeed in
trouble, and it is particularly dismaying to see spokesmen
for the Hubble site announcing that their telescope may help
to "reveal which of these breakup mechanisms are
contributing to the disintegration of 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann
3". Neither NASA, nor the Hubble folks in particular will
find evidence for any of the "hypotheses" offered, say the
electrical viewpoint the periodic breakup of comets is no
surprise. Fragmentation and disintegration illustrate the
same dynamic forces observed in the "surprising"
outbursts of comets. Electrical outbursts and complete
disintegration are merely matters of degree in a discharging
exploding capacitor, which is exactly what an
"active comet" is in the electrical interpretation.
one of the most commonly used devices in electrical
engineering, stores electrical charge between layers of
insulating material. And that is what a comet moving through
regions of different charge will do—it will store
electric charge. A comet nucleus can be compared to the
insulating material, the dielectric, in a capacitor. As
charge is exchanged from the comet’s surface to the solar
"wind" (actually an electrically active plasma), electrical
energy is stored in the nucleus in the form of charge
polarization. This can easily build up intense mechanical
stress in the comet nucleus, which may be released
catastrophically. And just as a capacitor can explode when
its insulation suffers rapid breakdown, a comet can do
precisely the same.
by electrical theorist Wallace Thornhill, "comets break up
not because they are chunks of ice 'warming' in the Sun, and
not because they are loose aggregations of smaller bodies,
but because of electrical discharge within the nucleus
Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, first observed in 1930 and named
after its two German discoverers, has never put on a
spectacular display comparable to such "Great Comets" of the
twentieth century as Halley, Hale-Bopp, and Hyakutake. It is
a short-period comet: for electrical theorists that means a
lower-voltage comet—and, as a rule, less drama.
Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 completes an orbit every 5.4 years.
Its path takes it from just beyond the orbit of Jupiter to
inside the orbit of Earth. But it does not visit the more
remote regions of the solar system, while the spectacular
"Great Comets" spend long periods adjusting in that more
negative environment of the Sun's domain before racing
sunward. What Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 does exhibit, however,
is a highly elliptical (elongated) orbit, so in
electrical terms that means more rapid transit through the
Sun's electric field and more intense stresses on the
capacitor than would be the case were the comet moving on a
less eccentric path between the regions of Jupiter's and
The comet is
presently headed toward perihelion, or closest approach to
the Sun (within 87.3 million miles), on June 6. Well before
then, on May 12th it will pass within 7.3 million
miles of Earth. Though that is roughly 30 times the distance
of the Moon from Earth, many earthbound and space telescopes
should capture images of the comet in sufficient resolution
to provide additional critical tests of the electrical
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