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A Key to the Mystery of Comet Origins...
in the Current Visit of Hale-Bopp?

By Richard C. Hoagland
Copyright 1997 The Enterprise Mission
All Rights Reserved

When one of the brightest comets in this century sweeps grandly through the inner solar system after an absence of millennia -- a spectacular object whose nucleus alone is estimated by professional astronomers now to measure at least 25 miles across -- the apparition can be (and has been!) reasonably termed "the event of a lifetime." Such is the current apparition of "Hale-Bopp."

One glimpse of this extraordinary visitor, even from "glare-filled inner-city skies," is more than enough to convince even the most casual observer that there is indeed something "special" about this one...

How special is about to be confirmed.

About 20 years ago, a young astronomer and expert in "celestial mechanics" (orbital motions in space) at the United States Naval Observatory, Dr. Thomas Van Flandern (METARESEARCH), noticed something peculiar regarding the orbits of Very Long-Period Comets (defined as those making their apparent first appearance in the inner solar system). Van Flandern noticed that the orbits of these "first timers," traced back against the reference points of background stars, revealed an anomalous concentration of orbit "crossing points" at two opposite locations along the common plane of planetary orbits of the solar system [marked by the green "Xs" on the B&W enlargement from a comet orbit/solar system diagram, reproduced below]. See Exploded Planet Hypothesis.

Van Flandern immediately noticed a striking similarity of this cometary orbital behavior to (then) contemporary Soviet "anti-satellite" tests being conducted in Earth orbit. In these tests, an explosive-laden satellite was launched, to ultimately rendezvous with an orbiting target; the rendezvous accomplished, the explosive charge would be detonated, and the resulting explosion would destroy both the weapons' satellite itself, as well as its intended target satellite.

Van Flandern's attention was drawn to the resulting orbits of the shrapnel from both satellites; these tumbling pieces immediately took up trajectories, in a variety of inclinations to the original satellites' orbit, that matched --

to an astonishing degree -- the types of orbits shared by Van Flandern's "first-time comets"; each satellite fragment, after completing half an orbit of the Earth, would converge back on the plane of the original satellites' orbit before the "event" -- thus uniquely marking, via observable celestial mechanics, the orbital site of the original explosion (right).

Van Flandern, who at this time was Head of the Celestial Mechanics Branch of the U.S. Naval Observatory, saw in this behavior a striking model for the then (still) mysterious "genesis of Very Long Period Comets" (those whose first-time orbits carefully preserve their original parameters, before repeated passages past inner solar system planets are able to destroy this vital information by irrevocably changing their recurring orbits). Even more significant: Van Flandern realized that his Soviet weapons' observations and resulting cometary comparisons was radical new evidence in support of a (by then) long-discarded model for solar system evolution. Van Flandern realized that, if "pristine" comets are still following trajectories strikingly reminiscent of orbital explosions, then, maybe, those orbits were in fact the direct result of a truly gigantic orbital explosion... like the long-imagined explosion of an entire planet -- located in the puzzling "gap" between the current orbits of Jupiter and Mars.

At one time, about a hundred years ago, the prevailing theory for the origin of at least the asteroids -- this collection of highly visible "debris" orbiting between the planets Mars and Jupiter (left) -- was that these, indeed, were the results of a formerly exploded planet. Then, as newer, space-age observations began accumulating, this model fell increasingly into scientific disrepute. Dr. Van Flandern's new celestial mechanics observations were seen by his colleagues as nothing less than an attempt to revive a long "discredited" solar system model. The implications for ancient solar system history, if Van Flandern turned out to be correct, would be nothing less than staggering: one immediate effect would be to call into question the true genesis of asteroids once again... after most astronomers had thought their origins were long since settled.

The immediate reaction of Van Flandern's colleagues, not only to his observations but his published scientific papers on the subject, was predictable: rejection: not only was there now strong, compelling evidence (the astronomical community believed) for a primordial origin for all asteroids and comets (as billions-of-years-old fragments of a "proto-planet," which never truly formed), there was (in their minds) the complete absence of any known energy source strong enough to completely detonate "a planet." Unlike the sun (or other stars), nuclear fusion was (and is) deemed theoretically impossible in planets, so Van Flandern's "exploded planet model" lacked any known mechanism to "explode!" Undaunted by such theoretical considerations (after all, science is supposed to be built on verifiable, testable observations, not pre-conceived notions about what is or is not "possible"), Tom Van Flandern set about quietly accumulating centuries of cometary observations, coupled with the latest radar and NASA spacecraft observations of the asteroids. Despite the (then) lack of theoretical energy resources adequate to detonate a planet, Van Flandern's calculations, coupled with his reading of the spacecraft data, convinced him more each day that -- novel energy sources notwithstanding -- both comets and asteroids were somehow jointly formed in a gargantuan primordial explosion circa 3 million years ago... of a much more massive, former planetary member of the solar system.

All scientific models, to be deemed "scientific," must be testable; in other words, they must contain specific predictions against which later observations ultimately can be compared. Van Flandern's developing model of "a planet that one day decided to blow up" turned out to contain ample observational predictions (apart from the resulting solar system orbits of the "pieces"); the most striking prediction was that both comets and asteroids, if they originated as fragments of a formerly "exploding" planet, should have company... they should be intimately associated with a cloud of orbiting companion fragments -- all circling around each other, as the center of gravity of each resulting "fragment cloud" also orbits the center of the solar system.

Because both asteroids and comets are literally only miles across (as opposed to planets, which measure thousands of times larger), directly seeing these tiny orbiting companions from the Earth has proven all-but-impossible. Historical "occultation" observations of asteroids, as they pass across chance background stars, has only given tantalizing hints of the existence of such invisible companions ("asteroid satellites," as they've been termed), causing some stars to blink on an off rapidly during rare encounters; are these tiny satellites, briefly obscuring background starlight in "satellite eclipses," as the fragments pass across the star? No one's really sure. What's occurring deep inside a comet -- pictured in Van Flandern's model also as a similar host of "whirling fragments" circling each other (above), but this time generating clouds of evaporated water and other gasses as they are heated by strong sunlight, that ultimately expands as visible cometary "tails" typically measuring millions of times longer -- is even more impossible to accurately determine with existing observations... at least so far, from Earth.

The critical nature of these observations for testing major aspects of Van Flandern's theory hinges on the crucial method of proposed comet/asteroid satellite formation: for the asteroids (in the prevailing "mainstream" model), Van Flandern's colleagues previously argued that such proposed companions (if they were found to occur) would be created by occasional collision of one asteroid with another. "Not so," responded Van Flandern, the celestial mechanics expert. According to his detailed orbital calculations "random asteroid collisions are too violent to form stable, long-term satellites; to form such long-term orbits (for at least several million years...) such companion fragments can only be drawn from the expanding debris-cloud of the original exploding planet (see below)... as the pieces sweep outward from the center of the explosion, gently capturing (by mutual gravitational interactions) other nearby pieces that are moving outward with small relative velocities in "almost the same direction..."

Comet nuclei, on the other hand (in the prevailing "Whipple" model -named in the 1950's after a well-known Harvard astronomer, Dr. Fred C. Whipple), were generally viewed prior to Van Flandern as simply "single, dirty icebergs": frozen bits of the original solar system nebula (containing LOTS of water) that did not form a planet but continued orbiting the sun. As they occasionally approached the center of the solar system (nudged into infalling orbits by distant passing stars, in this prevailing model) these "bergy bits" would be heated by increasing sunlight as they approached the inner solar system -- resulting in a spectacular release of their trapped gasses into space (below)... and the production of the brilliant "comet's tail" -- pushed opposite the sun by the sheer pressure of raw, unfiltered sunlight.

The occasional "splitting" of these cometary nuclei, observed with Earth-bound telescopes over the years, was ascribed (in the mainstream" model) to the uneven solar heating of this nucleus from intense sunlight -- resulting in thermal stresses that (combined with tidal action from the sun) resulted sometimes in a spectac-ular break-up of this "dirty iceberg."

Van Flandern argues differently: cometary nuclei "break up," he insists, because the increasing gravitational force of the sun (as the comet sweeps inward from the outer solar system) eventually strips away the loosely-bound "cometary satellites" orbiting that nucleus. Depending on the mass of the objects and how far apart they're orbiting each other, at some point solar gravity "wins" over the weak force between the cometary objects... and the resulting cometary "free agents" then take up separate orbits of the sun themselves -- each one becoming another, separate comet!

Van Flandern points out that this "splitting" phenomenon has also occurred when comets pass too close to planets; the most notable recent example was Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9's 1993 encounter with the massive Jupiter, which resulted in 21 separate "fragments" being split (in the mainstream model) from the previously single "iceberg." According to Van Flandern, the calculable Jovian tidal forces on this comet at the time it fragmented were actually insufficient to "tear it apart" (which was the official NASA version for the splitting); what really separated the (previously unobservable) 21 fragments, he argues, was the Jovian gravity field simply shearing off the orbiting satellites into separate, parallel orbits -- as the comet dove deep into the gravity "well" of Jupiter (right), and the resulting tides overwhelmed the individual gravitational attraction of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 satellites to each other.

The first breakthrough for Van Flandern came in late August, 1993. At that time, on its way to Jupiter (where it wouldn't arrive until December, 1995), the unmanned Galileo spacecraft flew by the second of two targeted asteroids en route: 33-mile diameter "243 Ida." The TV images relayed from the 6300-mile "Ida fly-by" instantly banished all further mainstream doubts as to whether asteroids have "satellite companions": Ida turned out to possess a mile-wide satellite (left, in circle), soon dubbed "Dactyl" (derived from Greek mythology regarding beings, called "Dactyli," who lived on Mount Ida in the company of Zeus). Debate instantly began regarding whether this was just a "fluke": were "asteroid satellites" truly common, or was Ida somehow "special?" Van Flandern wryly observed soon after, in Sky and Telescope Magazine: "Those with a good sense of the laws of probability must realize that finding a moon of an asteroid during only the second spacecraft encounter with one [in the entire history of the space program] implies that these minor satellites are at least not rare [emphasis added]."

In the face of these "probabilities," the long-time opponents of such satellites eventually turned to what confirmation of Dactyl's existence now "proved"; after denying for decades that any asteroids could (or did!) possess such satellites, these astronomers now argued that they had predicted them "all along"... as "a natural consequence of asteroidal collisions." Ignored in this rising debate was Van Flandern's clear priority, as well as his detailed celestial mechanics calculations effectively eliminating such a "trivial" origin for this new class of solar system objects; in fact, the discovery of Ida's "moon" effectively opened the door, in 1993, to the awesome implications standing behind the entire, long-denied existence of such satellites... that Ida (and thousands of other asteroids, yet unseen in close-up) had acquired "moons" during that almost unimaginable millions-of-years-old "event" which was the source of Ida's own existence: the explosion of a major member of the solar system... sometime in this solar system's "recent" past!

Which brings us, then, to "comets."

Even before the distant appearance beyond Jupiter of "Hale-Bopp," in 1995, the 1994 "smash ending" to Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9's existence in the atmosphere of Jupiter (see IR image of 20,000 mile-diameter impact shockwave, right) -- one year after its dramatic "fragmentation" on its first approach to the solar system's largest planet -- contained all sorts of vital clues to the correctness of Van Flandern's model: from the "fragmentation" of the nucleus during its initial approach in 1993, to the first scientific data from the 21 fragments' fiery impact into Jupiter, in July of 1994: ground-based and spacecraft data indicated the almost complete absence of any water in the impacting fragments! This meant that Shoemaker-Levy 9 was NOT a "water-laden, frozen iceberg" at all -- but much more like an asteroid; this, in turn, implied that it was "made of sterner stuff" than merely ice, strongly implying that Jupiter's tidal forces during that first encounter truly would have been even more ineffective in causing "fragmentation!" This left only "departing asteroid satellites," under conflicting Jovian gravity, as a reasonable explanation for Shoemaker-Levy 9's extraordinary dynamical behavior, in 1993 and 1994...

Score another one for Van Flandern.

Of course, the mainstream astronomical community didn't credit him with anything; conventional explanations and mundane reports of Shoemaker-Levy 9's behavior still abound: all insisting that it was simply "torn apart by Jupiter's overwhelming gravity" as it approached the planet.

Which brings us to Hale-Bopp.

Even if it wasn't the most visually spectacular comet of this century, the remarkably dynamic details of Hale-Bopp's internal structure -- as revealed by the now literally thousands of images filling the Internet from amateur and professional astronomers around the world -- would assure it's place in history; more important: these details seem to be on the verge of providing vital confirmation of Van Flandern's crucial cometary model... if not confirmation of the catastrophic planetary model "lurking in the wings" behind it.

These extensive images, acquired as Hale-Bopp passed closest to the sun and Earth, are revealing regular, systematic processes occurring inside the nuclear region of Hale-Bopp that now defy "easy, trivial explanations" (such as nuclear rotation); these remarkable observations (see below) most easily can only be explained by the presence of one (or more!) "large satellites" in orbit in the Hale Bopp nucleus -- exactly as Van Flandern has maintained for over 20 years!

In examining a wide variety of Hale-Bopp images now available across the Web, two striking facts have become apparent to this writer: the total absence of any recent, large-scale, detailed close-ups of the nuclear region of Hale-Bopp, taken with a major telescope (2 meters, and up), including NASA Hubble imaging; and the startling, highly rhythmic "wave-like" behavior of this critical central region of the comet, even in the smaller-scale amateur imaging that is available. Close examination of several time-lapse "movies" that are available from the existing imaging (and subsequent analysis by The Enterprise Mission) has allowed us to infer important information regarding processes occurring in this nuclear region, below the resolution limits of the imaging itself. Processes that now strongly imply the presence of one or more "Van Flandern satellites" orbiting in the central region of Hale-Bopp.

(Additional Animations)

The process is akin to the widely-accepted practice in the astronomical community of discerning features in the central parts of galaxies, or details taking place in binary star systems, directly invisible to current imaging Earthbound technology; by applying known laws of physics and orbital dynamics to the existing Hale-Bopp images, the resulting behavior of the material streaming out of the nuclear region of the comet (that can be seen), can be "traced back" to a reasonable model of what's "invisibly" causing this behavior. Thus, in this way we are putting forth evidence here of striking dynamical behavior vis a vis Hale-Bopp, which now strongly implies the existence of one or more satellites orbiting inside the nuclear region, currently below the resolution threshold of existing imagery.

The key is in those remarkable "waves" widely observed emanating from the nucleus. Comparison of similar-scaled images of Halley's Comet (1986) and Hale-Bopp (1997) reveal dramatic differences (see below); Halley's image is highlighted by several "jets" apparently emanating from a single nucleus(left); the various representations of Hale-Bopp's image (right; and "double-plate," below) on the other hand, is characterized by a striking set of precisely-controlled waves -relentlessly marching outward from the nucleus of Hale-Bopp like a "ripple-tank" demonstration in a laboratory here on Earth!

The standard model for a cometary nucleus envisions a single "iceberg," blowing off material via a series of "sun-activated jets" (below, left), while Van Flandern's "satellite model" is entirely different -- a central object, orbited by one or more smaller satellites... amid a cloud of additional orbiting "stuff" (below, right). A comparison of these two models with the previous real images (above), clearly supports the "single object, jet-like model" for the Halley's Comet single nucleus... and a very different process apparently occurring deep inside Hale-Bopp's central region. It is highly tempting to ascribe the highly ordered image of Hale-Bopp to the precisely-controlled physics expected of a rhythmically-orbiting set of objects in its nucleus... i.e. Van Flandern's satellites!

The key to deciding if Van Flandern's model is correct vis a vis Hale-Bopp (at least until much higher-definition images are officially released), would seem to lie in clever application of known astronomy and physics to the "unobservable." Surprisingly, if you compare the currently visible activity within the nucleus of Hale-Bopp (below, left and bottom) with a model of a double-star system ejecting an expanding atmosphere past one of its companions via gravitational effects through the "L-2 lobe" (below, right) -- the resulting comparison is eerily similar to time-lapse motion images of Hale-Bopp!


The implications for both Van Flandern's "satellite model," as well as a shattering, potential "hidden catastrophic solar system history," is obvious...

Stay tuned.




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Copyright 1996 - 2013 Richard C. Hoagland+ All Rights Reserved