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Open letter to science editors


KRONOS Vol IX, No. 3


C. Leroy Ellenberger

The origin of comets is an unsolved problem despite the consensus among astronomers favoring ice balls and Oort's hypothesis. The foregoing paper by McGanney on the nature and origin of comets presumes to offer a revolutionary replacement for this consensus. To the reader unfamiliar with the details, the author seems to make a good case; but the more one reads, the less satisfactory his model - as well as his criticism of conventional concepts - becomes.

The author presents the thesis that planets originate from comets captured from interstellar space, whose orbits are reduced and circularized by a novel electrical process, and that in the process their mass increases spectacularly. Unfortunately, the origin of comets from interstellar space is totally unsupported by observations of new comets and the author makes no attempt to explain this discrepancy, much less even acknowledge it.

A remnant from a stellanova entering the solar system would have a hyperbolic velocity. According to comet expert J. C. Brandt, "very careful examination of the original orbits (that is, the comets' trajectories prior to entering the inner solar system) discloses none that are hyperbolic - there are no initially interstellar comets''.(1) If there were, some new comets by reason of their excess velocity would not "bend" around the Sun as tightly as all are observed to do.

The author refers to two of his previously published papers, his Refs. 1 and 2. Unfortunately, these papers do not inspire confidence. The first supposedly provides support for the existence of fusion in Saturn's atmosphere. However, it provides nothing of the sort; merely another assertion of its presence. The "second presents a model for galactic evolution in which new stars are expelled from the galactic nucleus and return billions of years later after completing their single elliptical orbit. Thus, in 4.5 billion years, the Sun has yet to complete one circuit. This implies that the Milky Way is much larger than normally reckoned.

Since that paper implicitly equates an age of 45 million years with one of 4.5 billion years, its internal consistency, not to mention its merit, is highly questionable.

The author claims that Saturn is younger than Jupiter because "Saturn produces more internal heat for its size than does Jupiter". However, this conclusion ignores an important, well-known point. The flattening of Saturn, as measured by Voyager, indicates that Saturn's greater excess heat comes from gravitational separation of helium from hydrogen. Therefore, it follows that Saturn is as old as Jupiter.(2)

In criticizing the work of others, the author often either misrepresents the point at issue or mounts an irrelevant rebuttal. In criticizing Clube and Napier (Ref. 7), the series of twelve numbers cited are not the "ages of worldwide catastrophic events", but merely the generally accepted horizons for geological ages. The following argument is therefore fallacious.

Even worse is the rebuttal to Wetherill regarding planet formation from planetesimals (Ref. 34), the possibility of which is not at issue. The analysis of Saturn's two dancing moons by Dermott does not prove that bodies in similar orbits cannot collide. By raising such a point, the author shows that he does not discriminate between concentric and intersecting orbits. If two bodies approach at a sufficiently oblique angle, they will collide. The dumbell-shaped Trojan asteroid 624 Hektor provides strong presumptive evidence for having survived a collision.(3) Szebehely's work on N-body systems is also irrelevant because it is based on pure gravitational interaction of point masses which perforce ignores tidal friction, sticking, and coalescing during collisions.

With respect to Ref. 9, the cooling effect following the 1982 eruption of El Chichon does not invalidate the greenhouse effect as implied. In point of fact, despite the cooling, 1983 overall was warmer than 1982 according to New Scientist, 15 March 1984, p. 5.

Despite all these problems, the paper would make a valuable contribution if it provided, as promised, a viable mechanism to explain rapid orbital circularization, ie., the conversion of an elongated, cometary orbit to a circular, planetary one within1000 years. Ideally, the example in the appendix (as it was requested) should do this; but close inspection shows this is not the case.

The real problem is how a cometary eccentricity of 0.8 or 0.9 can be reduced to less than 0.1, which is relatively circular. However, what purports to be shown is the conversion of a body in a Jupiter-like orbit to one in Venus's orbit. This is not really a circularization as much as it is an exercise in energy reduction. The starting eccentricity is not that of a comet, but a planet or asteroid, which at 0.045 (4) is very close to that of Jupiter (0.048) and Uranus (0.047). In this light, the illustrated reduction in eccentricity by about an order of magnitude is irrelevant.

If the model is a correct representation of how the solar system functions today, as is claimed, we should be observing the inward migration of the Trojan asteroids, if not Jupiter itself. Needless to say, we do not. Finally, the idea that the radius of a body the size of Venus would increase at the rate of "about one meter per hour", by the accumulation of matter from the hypothetical solar discharge at the end of the process, is extremely difficult to envision.

C. Leroy Ellenberger


1. J. K. Beatty et al. (eds.), The New Solar System, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: 1982), p. 182.
2. Ibid, pp. 126-7.
3. Ibid, pp. 99-100.
4. With an eccentricity of 0.04s, the ratio of the shortest "radius" to the longest is 0.999, which is virtually indistinguishable from a circle.

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