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Are Minicomets Hitting the Earth?

Week of June 2, 1997

Some things seem to happen right under your nose, but for some reason you never notice. Dr. Lou Frank, of the University of Iowa, claimed years ago that he had detected the evidence that many mini-comets were impacting the Earth's upper atmosphere every day. At the time, his claims were dismissed because the evidence was so poor; as a matter of fact, I myself saw a presentation on this topic and also found the evidence to be very dicey.

However, a new satellite launched by NASA appears to have vindicated Frank. The image above is from that satellite, and seems to show the vapor trail of just such a minicomet vaporizing in the upper atmosphere (that part of the image was over the night side of the Earth when it was taken, so a fully lit Earth was added in to the picture for reference). Furthermore, many of these streaks were seen in a study done by Frank, who now claims that thousands of such small comets, weighing in at 20-40 tons each, slam into the Earth's atmosphere each and every day.

His evidence is very good, although controversial. Why don't we actually see these things from the ground? Perhaps they are covered with a dark, sooty layer, as many comets are (Comet Halley is one of the darkest objects ever seen, almost a giant lump of coal in space). Why don't we see the evidence of them hitting the Moon? From what I can tell, no one knows. Obviously, a lot more study is needed, and is being done right now to find out what these things are.

One of the things I love about science and astronomy-- as scientists, we demand proof of extraordinary claims. But when that proof comes in, we are likely to change our minds. What political system can say the same?

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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