When Comets Break Apart
unexpected breakup of comets, some at considerable distances from
the Sun, has long baffled comet researchers. But there is no
mystery if comets are solid bodies discharging electrically as they
move into regions of different charge in the Sun’s electric field.
1976, Comet West never approached closer than 30 million kilometers
from the Sun. So when a disruption occurred and the comet split into
four fragments (subsequent to the display pictured above),
astronomers were shocked.
recently, the explosive break up of
Comet Linear in
the summer of 2000 provoked even greater amazement. The event
occurred well over a hundred million kilometers from the Sun.
fact, eighty percent of comets that split do so when they are far
from the Sun, according to Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, authors of
the book Comet. Comet Wirtanen fragmended in 1957 a little
inside the orbit of Saturn, and something similar occurred to Comet
Strangely, other comets have approached much closer to the Sun and
not broken apart. The perihelion of the Great Comet of
December 1680, studied by both Newton and Halley, was less than
100,000 kilometers from the Sun, but did not split.
Noting such considerations,
Druyan write: “The gravitational tides of the Sun or unequal heating
cannot be sole causes of the splitting of comets. We still do not
know why comets split”.
paper published in the 1960's Dr. Brian G. Marsden, an astronomer at
the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, drew attention to the anomaly of comet fragmentation.
Discussing the “sungrazing” comets, he noted that two
instances,—1882 II and 1965 VIII—look as if they had split apart
near aphelion (their farthest distance from the Sun), well
beyond the orbit of Neptune and far above the ecliptic plane.
Moreover, the relative velocity of their separation was far greater
than could be due by solar heating.
“Although most of the comets observed to split have done so for no
obvious reason, one really does require an explanation when the
velocity of separation is some 20 % of the velocity of the comet
itself! A collision with some asteroidal object at 200 A.U. from
the sun, and 100 A.U. above the ecliptic plane, even though it would
only have to happen once, is scarcely worthy of serious
according to Sagan and Druyan, “the problem is left unsolved”.
But the authors appear
to have found a clue without recognizing its significance.
“Splitting and jetting may be connected … At the moment Comet West
split, the individual fragments brightened noticeably, and propelled
large quantities of dust into space in the first of some dozen
bursts”. The same could be said for the more recent Comet Linear
intense, high-velocity jets and explosions of dust, traveling at
supersonic speeds, precede the fragmentation of a comet nucleus? In
the electrical model of comets, the answer is obvious. The behavior
of comets will never be understood in simple mechanical terms
because they are electrified bodies orbiting within the plasma
environment of an electrified Sun. The solar plasma behaves like a
very good conductor in the Sun's electrical connection with the
galaxy. And just like any good conductor, the electric field within
the plasma is very low. But unlike good metal conductors, the solar
plasma is of extremely low density and therefore its
current-carrying ability is limited.
adjust to the changing plasma potential as they move radially toward
or away from the Sun. This adjustment is not so difficult on the
long, slow journey through the outer reaches of the solar system.
But it usually involves visible electric discharge effects as the
comet dashes through the inner solar system.
nucleus behaves like a capacitor. And as any electrical engineer
knows, if a discharge occurs within a capacitor it will explode
violently. That is what causes comet nuclei to fragment and it is
why the event is commonly preceded by outbursts far more energetic
than could be explained by sublimating ices. The energy is provided
by the stored electrical energy within the nucleus.
All that is
required to trigger the comet fragmentation is an electrical
breakdown within the comet. In this sense, it may be analogous to
the electrical breakdown evident in an
And that breakdown in the comet may happen with any sudden change in
the solar plasma environment. The more sudden the change in the
comet's electrical environment, the more likely that flaring and
fragmentation will occur. Electrical theorist Wallace Thornhill has
noted that the remarkable 300,000 km wide flare-up of comet Halley
between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus followed some of the largest
solar flares ever recorded (under the assumptions of the “snowball
”theory of comets, the nucleus should be frozen and inert at that
model also explains why we should expect long-period comets to put
on a brighter display than short-period comets. The long-period
comets spend a longer time in a region of lower plasma potential
than the short-period comets. Consequently, their voltage difference
on their approach to the Sun will be higher, leading to a brighter
and more energetic discharge.
“puzzling” absence of small (house-sized) comets may be explained in
equally simple terms electrically. Such small objects would readily
lose their charge before reaching the inner solar system. But a
comet nucleus kilometers in diameter presents a much
different electrical profile and its charge could not be dissipated
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