Sunday, November 24, 2013

Electric Comets: Failures of the Electric Comet Model

With the recent hubub over comets, provided by some Sun-grazers in the news (ISON, Pan-STARS, etc. NASA Comet ISON Observing Campaign) I realized that I did not really have any well-established write-up on the claims about comets made by Electric Universe (EU) supporters.  I discovered that I had actually addressed some of these claims a number of times, but always as a part of other claims.  So I thought I'd take a quick break from my winter hiatus to assemble some of these into a single post.

Recently, a reader pointed me to some claims being made by the ThunderBolts project in some of their YouTube videos.  Most of them are recycled old stuff that keeps getting repeated on a variety of forums.

Periodically, the Electric Universe supporters repeat their claims that comets, like the stars, glow predominantly due to a cathode discharge-type interaction with the Sun.  They seem to tie this claim back to some work by Kristian Birkeland but the notion predates Birkeland, and was explored by mainstream astronomers in the late 1800s and early 1900s when electromagnetism was placed on a unified mathematical foundation by Maxwell's Equations and was still the new and exciting force in physics.

Let's collect and update the responses to some of these claims from some earlier posts:
Many of the 'Electric comet' claims are being repeated all over the web, with very little critical examination.  Here I'll just examine a few.

EU Claim: The evidence suggests that comets are highly negatively charged with respect to the Sun. As they rush toward the Sun, the voltage increases until at some point the comet nucleus begins to discharge. Electrons are stripped from a few points on the comet surface where the electric field is strongest. These “spark discharges” finely machine rocky material from the surface to form a “cathode jet” of negatively charged dust together with surface matter that has been torn apart to release ionized atoms and molecules, including oxygen.  
Prediction #3: Electric Comets and the "Domino Effect"

Laboratory cathodes and anodes form part of a complete circuit.  Where is the return circuit between the Sun and the comet?  If we see the comet, why don't we see the return path of the particles?  In the lab, the return circuit corresponds to the wires connecting the discharge tube to the power source.  And just where is the battery or generator that keeps the system energized?  To maintain the potential between the Sun and the comet, the return circuit would have to be isolated or insulated as it is in a laboratory environments.  Otherwise the comet would quickly 'discharge' and stop glowing.

But even without a solar-system scale voltage, charged particle interactions can take place at the boundary of the comet material moving out and the solar wind moving in.  Orbiting spacecraft experience a range of interactions, from ultraviolet solar photons liberating charges from the satellite metal components (photoelectric effect) to charge redistribution on the spacecraft as an otherwise neutral plasma flows around the satellite and the electrons can diffuse more quickly into the wake behind the satellite, generating a small charge separation. 

This boundary interaction, similar to the Earth's magnetosphere and the heliospheric termination shock, is common when two different flows meet.  Even electrically neutral flows such as the wake of ships moving through water, or aircraft moving through the air, can form these boundary layers where more complex interactions can take place.

EU Claim: While moving between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus (14 times farther from the Sun than the Earth), Comet Halley experienced an outburst between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus that caused dust to stretch over some 300,000 km. At that distance from the Sun, the surface should be in deep freeze at –200 degrees C.  
Prediction #3: Electric Comets and the "Domino Effect"

Again, EU 'theorists' demonstrate incredible misunderstandings in thermodynamics and chemistry.  Strange oversight for a group that claims to be 'interdisciplinary'.

This is hardly a problem for the standard comet model where comets have large amounts of carbon dioxide.

Melting and boiling points are different in the low pressure of space. 

Most people are familiar with the fact that water boils at lower temperature at higher altitudes.  The lower the the pressure exterior to a surface, the easier it is for atoms to 'boil off' of the surface, creating a vapor around the object.  Many sensitive instruments launched into space must be allowed to 'outgas' for a time as volatiles trapped in metals and plastics under atmospheric pressure where the satellite was built will begin to escape from surfaces exposed to vacuum.   The lower the pressure, the lower the boiling point, for CO2.

While at atmospheric pressure, CO2 sublimates at -78.2C.  Drop the pressure and the sublimation point drops even further.  At about 1/760 atmospheric pressure, the sublimation point drops to -134.3C (Wikipedia: Carbon dioxide data page).  For those unfamiliar with chemistry, the boiling or sublimation point is defined as the temperature where the vapor pressure is equal to the ambient pressure.

In addition, the temperature at the surface of the comet is going to be WARMER than the cloud-tops of planets at the same distance due to the reflectivity of the comet nucleus.

Planets, whose atmospheres are more reflective (30% or higher), will have a lower cloud-top temperature than a comet nucleus at the same distance which has a much lower reflectivity (about 3%), and therefore absorbs more of the radiant heat it receives.  The temperature of the surface of a comet in sunlight will be higher than the cloud-tops of a more reflective planet at same distance.  Got a layer of snow on your asphalt driveway? Watch how fast it melts around the regions of exposed asphalt when the sun comes out compared to areas completely covered with snow.

EU Claim: "Their surfaces display sharp relief, not what one would expect from melting ice, " On Gravity-centric Cosmology and the Implications of a Universe Awash with Plasma
Section 2.11: Comets as dirty snowballs
by David B. Smith

Even years after the earlier claim noted above, EU theorists don't understand chemistry or thermodynamics.  Has Mr. Smith never observed melting snow and shapes that form due to non-uniform heating, melting and refreezing?  Perhaps Mr. Smith has only observed ice melting in his glass of tea?

I shoveled plenty of dirty snow for Snowmageddon & Snowpocalypse (wikipedia) and observed the many odd shapes formed as it melted and refroze with the day-night cycle.  It's funny that EU 'theorists' could convince others that this was a valid argument when there is so much real world experience with why they are wrong.   To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes to Watson: You have SEEN snow, but you have not OBSERVED snow. (Wikipedia: A Scandal in Bohemia)

The ambiguity between comets & asteroids has been known before Thornhill & Talbott
    •    Evolution of Comets Into Asteroids? (1971)
    •    Do comets evolve into asteroids - Evidence from physical studies (1982)
Some of these papers point out even earlier sources.

EU Claim: A direct confirmation of the electric connection came unwittingly from the Chandra X-ray Observatory on July 14, 2000.  At that time, the Chandra telescope viewed the comet Linear repeatedly over a 2-hour period, detecting unexpected X-rays from oxygen and nitrogen ions in the coma of the comet. The capture of electrons from the negatively charged comet by positively charged hydrogen ions in the solar wind is, of course, nothing else than an electric discharge, nature’s highly efficient means of X-ray production.  Prediction #3: Electric Comets and the "Domino Effect"

All of these recombination process happen due to relative motions of atoms, electrons and ions, regardless of how the particles are accelerated.  They are in no way evidences for any solar-system scale giant voltage drops of a million volts or more across planetary distances.

Electric Universe supporters now rely on a very ambiguous use of term 'discharge'.  EU basically wants to call anything that involves the motion of charges as a 'discharge', a definition so broad as to be technically useless.  If moving charges is all that is required, chemical reactions, which alter electron orbital configurations, could also be called a 'discharge' process.

In spite of EU claims of 'success' for their model, it still seems to take an non-EU person to figure out which specific process.  Here's the atomic process that move electrons around that professional astronomers, and REAL plasma physicists, must be familiar with: 
I suppose since alpha and beta decay as well as many nuclear reactions involve emission and absorption of charged particles, Electric Universe supporters can call that a 'discharge' as well!  Perhaps they'll quietly start calling nuclear reactions in the cores of stars as discharge processes and use that to claim the sun is electrically-powered!

EU Claim:  "that there would be a double 'flash' consisting of a powerful electric discharge event prior to a very large impact event which would be more explosive than expected, and that radio communication would be interrupted." 
On Gravity-centric Cosmology and the Implications of a Universe Awash with Plasma
Section 2.11: Comets as dirty snowballs
by David B. Smith

I've yet to find the original reference of the double flash before the impact AND a radio interruption with this impact event.  The only place I can find this is on Electric Universe sites.

Let's see, the spacecraft cameras saw the comet nucleus clearly.  The comet nucleus reflects only about 3-4% of the light falling on it, about as dark as a lump of charcoal, and it is being observed against a dark sky slightly brighter due to reflection from the cometary dust material.  So it's pretty clear that the camera was adjusted for low-light conditions, much like night-vision goggles.  Under those conditions, highly reflective material ejected from the impact point will be really bright, probably more than enough to saturate the camera.  Of course it was bright.

Any electrical arc sufficient to light up the region between the comet and spacecraft would have been more than enough to fry the spacecraft electronics, probably with no chance of recovery. 

But we have measured electric fields in the solar wind and in the vicinity of comets.  Solar wind models combined with spacecraft models enable satellite designers to estimate spacecraft charging as they move through plasmas.  Because discharges can kill the satellite electronics, knowledge of these conditions is vital to success of the missions.

Consider these values from the Giacobini-Zinner encounter, which measured +1 volts near the comet vs. +6 volts in the solar wind.  This was LOWER than the expected +10 volts (Dynamic PIC-simulations of charging phenomena related to the ice-spacecraft in both cometary and solar wind environments).  Considering these are voltages on the scale of batteries you can buy at the corner market, how could this be a "powerful electric discharge"?

After the impact of the probe with the comet nucleus, only a relatively weak x-ray enhancement was detected, so this also makes claims the impact produced an electric discharge as suspect.  The additional X-ray emissions were delayed and consistent with charge exchange between the solar wind and outgassed simple molecules.
    •    Chandra observations of Comet 9P/Tempel 1 during the Deep Impact campaign
    •    Chandra observations of Comet 9P/Tempel 1 during the Deep Impact campaign
    •    Swift X-Ray Telescope Observations of the Deep Impact Collision

Here's some additional summaries of what was learned in these comet flybys and impactors.  From NASA: Deep Impact (EPOXI):
  1. First determination that a comet's surface layer (few to 10 meters or so) is very porous (greater than 75 percent empty space)
  2. First direct evidence showing chemical diversity of outgassing associated with different parts of the cometary nucleus
  3. Discovered that hyperactive comets (5-10 percent of all comets) are driven by carbon dioxide and that the observed excess water is from icy grains in the coma. The processes of hyperactive comets are very different from those in normal comets.
or  NASA Epoxi: Encounter with Comet Hartley 2:
"NASA's EPOXI mission found that Comet Hartley 2 is a hyperactive little comet, spewing out more water than most other comets its size."
So lots of CO2 and water found in comets, still in line with the standard model of these objects.
EU Claim: "A forbidden oxygen line was discovered in Comet Austin’s coma. “Forbidden lines” are spectral signatures that are not expected in space because here on Earth they are found only within strong electric fields." -- Wal Thornhill.
Comet Wild 2, January 6, 2004.

Where did Thornhill get bizarre mis-understanding about forbidden lines? 

Forbidden lines are created by metastable states in the atom, which have a lifetime much longer than the regular atomic states.  Under normal circumstances, these states get de-excited by collisions with other atoms before they have a chance to radiate a photon.  However, under extremely low pressures, the states will not be de-excited by collisions and will de-excite by emitting a photon at a frequency correspond to the 'forbidden line'.  Electric fields may be in the environment, but they are not required to form forbidden lines.

I suspect Thornhill may be confusing forbidden lines (Wikipedia) with the Stark Effect (Wikipedia) which also has a long history in astronomy.

In spite of repeated claims by Electric Universe supporters to the contrary, the "Dirty Snowball" comet model has been refined, with better details on the composition and structure, but it is far from dead.

Meanwhile Electric Universe supporters continue to echo their support for their model that has a radically different particle and field arrangement for this part of the solar system, while they have yet to provide any model that allows us to to make useful estimates of these quantities.  This modeling capability is vital for the safety of satellites and astronauts (see Challenges for Electric Universe 'Theorists'). 

Yet the standard model, which lacks the million-or more voltages claimed by the Electric Sun advocates, seems to do quite well for protecting our satellites and we continue to explore around the solar system using it (see ADS: An advanced physical model of cometary activity).

So Electric Universe claims continue to be completely useless for doing real spaceflight...


Visitor said...

Well, there are numerous more problems. First, they make huge claims about charging but they seem to have no idea on how charging works. So yes, a bare nucleus has an insulating surface and can charge up. But how?

In a solar wind plasma & UV environment, what happens is:

UV from the Sun causes photo emission of electrons which charges the surface positively.

As electrons have higher thermal velocity/spread (due to their lower mass) in the solar wind, they are the responsible particle species for charging the surface. This contributes to negative surface charging.

Electron irradiation, however, also causes release of secondary electrons, which tend to make the surface charging less negative.

Balance of these three factors determines the charging voltage level at the surface.

To have strong negative charging one has to diminish the sunlight. So strong negative charging is more possible far from the sun, not close to it! Even in that case, "strong" is defined inn relative terms. Charging voltages are in the order of the electron temperature: e.g. even if one removes the sunlight, the surface would have to charge negatively to huge/infinite levels. Emissions of secondary electrons diminishes the negative charging, and sometimes can even make it positive!

But there is more. As one approaches the Sun, UV emission and photoelectron production (ie. positive charging) increases fast due to the 1/r^2 law. Electron temperature increases much slower, but electron density also increases as 1/r^2. These two effects should cancel out largely, so this thing of charging much more negatively makes more sense...

More? At 1 AU we know from Earth's moon that its sunlit surface is charged positively, as photoelectron production dominates.

Even more: Where the moon becomes negatively charged are the reions approaching its terminator, and of couse its wake. This is because sunlight hits the surface in shallower angles (or there is no sunlight at all). So this is where one expects larger negative charging. If this discharge phenomena would occur in a charged object in the solar wind, it would be mostly close to the terminator. "Strangely" wee see active regions of comets mostly in the subsolar part (where charging is positive).

And a final comment. All this theory about spacecraft discharging near a comet's surface has nothing specific to the comet, as far as I know. If such a theory had any merit, we should have seen discharges at any object where landings were attempted/execute (Hayabusa, NEAR, Earth's moon). No point to add here what we have (not) seen...

W.T."Tom" Bridgman said...

Thanks to the visitor above who pointed out additional details about comets and electric charging that is pretty well understood, no help from the Electric Universe cranks.

There is currently an Electric Universe outbreak regarding Comet ISON going on in the comment stream over at WattsUpWithThat?: Comet ISON appears to be toast – goes “poof” in video, then comes back to life.

Anonymous said...

Only a crazy person tries to convince people that a huge piece of rock seen on pictures is a "dirty snowball"...

W.T."Tom" Bridgman said...

To Anonymous:

Really? Have you ever actually seen snow? Have you ever worked with snow, shoveling, building, or similar?

You have to get really close to see the 'rock' inside a comet. How many rocks form 'clouds' streaming around them millions of miles long? They have to be the rock with 'something extra'. The rocks are the 'dirt' in 'dirty snowball' and we see them as meteors after the comet breaks up.

If it's not a 'snowball', then why do the spectra show the 'clouds' emitting spectral lines of water, CO2, and various molecular combinations more intense than their continuum emission? There's an awful lot of water and CO2 in that 'rock'.

Ian Whittaker said...

These lunatics have gone off the scale since the Rosetta mission hit the headlines. Every damn comment section of every article. When I asked one of these nutters to explain the observed density of 67P, 0.4gm/cm^3, I was told it could be an "electrostatic" force pushing the orbiter, and therefore making the gravity seem less than it actually was!
I kid you not.

W.T."Tom" Bridgman said...

To Ian Whittaker,

Actually, I am exploring some charge estimates for the nucleus based on the density claim.

I'm also finding some interesting problems with Thornhill's claim of OH radicals forming from oxygen from the nucleus with hydrogen from the solar wind. It takes a LOT of solar wind to produce the amount of OH we see, not to mention the amount of of water detected by the VIRTIS instrument.

All of these could be tied back to actual estimates for the spacecraft measurements, but you don't see an EU 'theorists' doing that!

I've had some EU spammers post comet claims to other off-topic threads which I'm trying to collect into an Electric Comets II post.

lodaya said...

Dear Tom,

Thanks for your work in putting up this blog. It seems clear from the EU theory that sending Rosetta to the comet 67P was an expensive mistake. Instead one could have built a charged device, kept it a few hundred kilometres out in space above the Earth, and attracted the comet. Then one could have taken as many pretty pictures as one wanted before sending the comet off on its path again. The proponents of the EU theory can work out how much less this would have cost than the billion Euros which ESA has spent.

W.T."Tom" Bridgman said...

To Lodaya,

I read this multiple times and I'm still not sure if it is meant to be sarcastic. Still, it raises an entertaining question.

As I've noted many times before (see Challenges...), we've yet to see Electric Universe 'theorists' do ANYTHING that accurately relates to any measurements we routinely make of the space environment.

Could 'engineers' promoting the Electric Universe actually profile the mission you describe? Here's just some of the questions they'd need to answer before they could even propose such a mission.

-How do they determine the charge on the comet nucleus?

-How much charge would be needed near Earth to attract it? How long would the course change take and what is the resulting trajectory? Certainly a number of different trajectories could be profiled for different charge configurations?

-What kind of charge generator would you need in space? How much would it cost to build? What kind of rocket (or fantastic Electric Universe technology) would be needed to loft it into space? How would it maintain position once it starts attracting the comet (that pesky Newtonian action-reaction stuff!).

-How will the charge generator maintain a net charge in the plasma space environment?

After answering these questions, they might start considering budgetary issues to do it. I suspect it would require far more than a billion Euros.

I suspect Electric Universe 'theorists' cannot even do this basic mission outline, instead probably hiding behind a claim such as there are too many variables to actually profile such a mission.

Yet these geniuses of the Electric Universe never explain how all those scientists promoting the mainstream ('false') space model ARE able to do it, planning years in advance of the actual mission. Not only that, but they accomplish it with a pretty good rate of success considering the actual 'unknowns' in the problem. If the space environment were really as electrically dangerous as Electric Universe advocates try to sell, virtually all of these missions would fail.

So I have to ask, who are the real incompetents, mainstream scientists or Electric Universe advocates?

One thing we can say for certain, is if you want to undermine a nation's space flight efforts, you couldn't do much better than putting a bunch of Electric Universe supporters in charge (sic).

Anonymous said...

...Good luck shovelling that snow on ISON. lol

W.T."Tom" Bridgman said...

To Anonymous (January 2015),

Since we don't have an actual mission going to ISON, the statement is a bit of a non-sequitur.

However, the Electric Universe contingent at the International Skeptics Forum (formerly the JREF forum), has not been doing well since re-invigorating the Electric Comet thread in April 2014.

I have participated in this in recent weeks and the Electric Comet supports have yet to present a coherent 'theory' that could be used for planning any future comet mission. The predictions of the standard comet model (without gigantic electric discharges) seems to do pretty well.

EU's bizarre claim of how water is being generated by 67P fails on basic chemistry.

lodaya said...

Dear Tom,

As I said before, I appreciate very much your work. I know how difficult it is to argue with people who are fixated on one particular mechanism that they have taken heart to. Glad to have contributed an entertaining question.

Best wishes,