By Michael Goodspeed

“It’s a mystery to me how comets work at all.” –Donald Brownlee, principal investigator of NASA’s Stardust Mission

No phenomenon in the observed Universe has been a source of more continuous surprises than comets. In fact, despite the exterior confidence by astronomers and astrophysicists that “all is well” in mainstream cometology, researchers have been so baffled by unexpected discoveries that conventional comet theory no longer exists! “We have now had four close encounters with comets, and every one of them has thrown astronomers onto their back foot.” -Stuart Clark, New Scientist, September 09, 2005.

Yet comets are still touted as “Rosetta Stones” allowing us to decipher the formation of the solar system. The “dirty snowball” hypothesis, considered theoretical bedrock for decades, has failed resoundingly at predicting comet behavior and, more recently, comet composition.

The most dramatic surprises began in 1986 with the discovery of negatively charged ions in the coma of Comet Halley, the signatures of energetic electrical activity, and the absence of water on the nucleus. In subsequent years, comets have produced a steady stream of “mysteries” that have left astronomers groping for answers:

1. Highly energetic supersonic jets exploding from comets’ nuclei.

2. The inexplicable confinement of these jets into narrow filaments, spanning great distances, up to MILLIONS of miles, defying the behavior of neutral gases in a vacuum.

3. Jets occurring on the dark sides of comet nuclei.

4. Comet surfaces with sharply carved relief — the exact opposite of what astronomers expected under the “dirty snowball” model.

5. Unexpectedly high temperatures and X-ray emissions from cometary comas.

6. A short supply or complete absence of water and other volatiles on comets’ nuclei.

7. Mounting evidence for the production of the OH radical in cometary comas, due to charge exchange with the Sun (the process that misled astronomers into thinking they were seeing evidence of water removed from the surface.)

8. Mineral particles that can only be formed under extremely high temperatures — the last thing one would expect from a chunk of dirty ice arriving from the outermost reaches of the solar system.

9. Comets flaring up while in “deep freeze,” beyond the orbit of Saturn.

10. Comets disintegrating many millions of miles from the Sun.

11. Comet dust particles more finely and evenly divided than is plausible for sublimating “dirty ices.”

12. Ejection of larger particles and “gravel” that was never anticipated under the idea that comets accreted from primordial clouds of ice, gas, and dust.

13. The unexplained ability of a relatively minuscule comet nucleus to hold in place a highly spherical coma, up to millions of miles in diamater, against the force of the solar wind.

All the above findings pose enormous problems for the “dirty snowball” model; all are predictable features of the electric model. Nevertheless, the odds are pretty good that you have never even HEARD of the electric comet hypothesis (although had you lived in the 19th century, when astrophysical journals frequently discussed the electric properties of comets, you might have). This is because the space sciences throughout most of the 20th century have been constructed on the theoretical assumption that bodies in space are electrically neutral. An electric comet would strike at the foundations of the theoretical sciences today.

The Electric Universe views comets as negatively charged bodies moving through the radial electric field of the Sun, the most positively charged object in the solar system. The most energetic cometary displays occur with comets that spend the most time in the outer regions of the solar system, where they acquire a strongly negative charge. As they race toward the Sun, moving into a more positively charged environment, the nucleus will be subjected to increasing electrical stresses, eventually beginning to discharge.

But what might occur with a shorter-period comet that does not move on a highly elliptical orbit? It happens that presently, we are witnessing an excellent example accompanied by many enigmas. In the past two weeks, the Comet Holmes 17P has made international headlines with an energetic outburst that has left astronomers speechless. The website has called it “the weirdest new object to appear in the sky in memory.” “For no apparent reason,” the comet began to increase in luminosity, rapidly brightening from 17th magnitude to about 2.5 — approximately a million-fold increase in brightness. This is the not the first such outburst by the comet — its discoverer Edwin Holmes witnessed a similar brightening in 1892 followed by a second eruption 2-and-a-half months later.

In the span of a few days, the comet’s coma grew to such an enormous and bright disk that it could be seen with the naked eye, though it never gets as close to the Sun as the planet Mars, and when it suddenly erupted, it was moving AWAY from the Sun.

As the structure of the coma has clarified itself, jets have appeared streaming away from the center. The source of the jets is entirely enigmatic, if not preposterous through the lens of the usual comet assumptions.

“This is truly a celestial surprise”…”Absolutely amazing”, said Paul Lewis, director of astronomy outreach at the University of Tennessee.

The reason for astronomers’ amazement is that, given the comet’s distance from the Sun, solar heating cannot offer a plausible explanation for the eruption. Worse than that, it has been moving AWAY from the Sun! So now, astronomers trying to explain these anomalies have begun grasping at straws. After a bit of hair tearing, the most common speculation is that the source of the outburst is “sinkholes” in the comet nucleus. But the trivial, almost immeasurable, gravity of a comet could hardly justify this “explanation” — no force is available to cause the surface to “sink”!

The only other “explanation” could be that another object struck the comet, a scenario that, by the astronomers’ own estimates, is virtually inconceivable.

If, however, cometary displays are almost exclusively due to electrical stresses, the question remains as to why a comet moving AWAY from the Sun might exhibit a sudden discharge. In the case of Comet Holmes, one might suppose that neither the conventional view of comets nor the electric hypothesis can explain what we’re seeing. But in fact, the electric view, based on new knowledge of the solar system environment, does offer a plausible interpretation of Holmes’ behavior.

In its most recent visitation, the comet Halley provided an important clue. As it moved away from the Sun out beyond the orbit of Saturn, Halley experienced a major eruption that not only remains unexplained today, but seems to have conveniently slipped from astronomers’ memory. Other comets such as Hale-Bopp began erupting “prematurely,” while still in the icy depths beyond Jupiter’s orbit. And numerous comets have exhibited unpredictable outbursts exceedingly difficult to explain in terms of an evaporating chunk of ice. And several comets have, quite unexpectedly, exploded into fragments. (See When Comets Break Apart,

In electrical terms, such unpredictable behavior can be related to the breakdown of the plasma sheath that forms around a charged body in space. This behavior is well documented in the laboratory. A plasma sheath insulates the charged body from the charge of the surrounding plasma, and across the wall of the sheath, called a “double layer,” there is a strong electric field. But when that wall breaks down, the result can be an explosive instability with accompanying electric discharge. In other words, the charged body may exhibit little unusual behavior until the breakdown occurs.

Such a breakdown can be provoked as one plasma sheath penetrates into another. This phenomenon seen in the laboratory draws our attention to the structure of the Sun’s plasma environment and to the unique plasma sheaths of the planets themselves. Wherever our probes have taken us, we have found new levels of structure, all with electrical implications. Within the “magnetosphere” of Venus, astronomers were amazed to find coherent ropes or “stringy things.” The New Horizons probe found curious cellular blobs moving down the vast plasma tail of Jupiter. The Sun itself is immersed in plasma structure with boundaries and double layers, a laboratory in space for intense investigation today.

So what might have happened to Comet Holmes? It is not a typical comet. The eccentricity of its orbit is minimal. It is always outside the orbit of Mars and inside the orbit of Jupiter. In fact, it is virtually as close to being an asteroid as it is to being a comet. And astronomers are slowly realizing that the distinctions between asteroids and comets are not as clear as they had once believed. Occasionally, asteroids sport cometary tails, like the asteroid Chiron, which was seen to develop a tail while orbiting between Saturn and Uranus around 1988 and 1989. It is now officially classified as both an asteroid and a comet. Since the electrical stresses on Holmes would be minimal, much like those on asteroids with modestly elliptical orbits, it is not unreasonable to assume that its plasma sheath remains largely undisturbed — unless it penetrates into or is penetrated by another sheath with sufficient differential across its double layer to cause an explosive breakdown.

It’s interesting to note that the diagram of Holmes’ orbit shows that it crossed the ecliptic (the plane of the planets movement around the Sun) quite close to the time of its closest approach to Mars. So it is certainly conceivable that Mars’ own plasma sheath, by penetrating that of Holmes, provoked the fateful breakdown. Though this would not qualify as a coherent hypothesis today, it is the kind of issue raised by the electric model that is systematically ignored by mainstream astronomers.

As of this writing, the space science community has fallen virtually mute on the enigma(s) of Comet Holmes. Comet science is in an undeniable state of crisis, and nothing short of an intellectual revolution will save officialdom from irredeemable embarrassment. It is the hope of the electric specialists that the failures of the standard comet model, so nakedly obvious in the face of discovery, will inspire astronomers and astrophysicists to reconsider the real-world disciplines of electrodynamics and experimental plasma science — disciplines that should never have been excluded in the first place.

For a review of the electric comet, see the index of comet pages on the Thunderbolts site: