Thousands of scientists in many disciplines of physical sciences such as geology, oceanography and planetary studies found the proposed existence of small comets as simply folly. Indeed it is fair to say that the only scientists to accept their existence were the three authors of the original two papers, research scientist John Craven who was in charge of the camera design, Sigwarth and myself. The criticism and emotional reactions began immediately with their publication. Noting that the publication date was April 1, 1986, reporters from newspapers, including the New York Times, quickly called to confirm that the content of the papers was simply an "April Fool's joke". The attitude of the scientific community was epitomized by the following consensus opinion:

"One has as much chance to see a small comet's shadow in Earth's atmosphere as to be able to show that a pig flies by seeing its shadow in moonlight."

This is a clever retort but one must give credit to the source of inspiration, a Weekly World News report from Jakarta, Indonesia reproduced in Figure 4 [below] of "Farmers shot up an entire herd of flying pigs as the migrating porkers flew over their rice paddies."

Fig 4. Newspaper article on flying pigs in Indonesia

In the face of a multitude of such criticisms it would have been advantageous to our professional careers if we could declare that the atmospheric holes were just due to camera noise in the images from the Dynamics Explorer spacecraft. But this was not possible for four major reasons. Firstly most of the holes moved from dusk to dawn across the dayside atmosphere. The camera would have no internal knowledge of such favoritism. Secondly and thirdly, the atmospheric holes favored the late morning hours and also became larger as the spacecraft moved to lower altitudes, respectively. Again the camera had no knowledge of what part of the atmosphere was being viewed or of the spacecraft position. And finally the frequency of atmospheric holes was correlated with the seasonal variations of meteors as viewed with a ground-based radar station. No retreat from the reality of atmospheric holes was possible.

The new cameras. Images from cameras on other spacecraft which could confirm the existence of atmospheric holes were not available until the launch of the Polar spacecraft on February 24, 1996. The reasons for this were several: the images must be taken in the special ultraviolet window, provide a view of a large section of the daylit atmosphere, and have sufficient resolution in order to detect an atmospheric hole. The intervening interval of 10 years since the report of images from Dynamics Explorer 1 was a period of relatively quiescent activity during which the scientific community became further convinced that the atmospheric holes in the images were simply due to camera noise. In this quiet atmosphere another set of auroral cameras was being constructed at the University of Iowa for the Polar spacecraft. The capabilities for the detection of atmospheric holes, and of the small comets, were also objectives of these cameras. These cameras were the most sophisticated scientific instruments ever built at the University of Iowa. If atmospheric holes and the small comets existed, the resolutions and capabilities of these cameras would leave no doubt.

The scientist in charge of the design and construction of the sophisticated Polar cameras was John Sigwarth who now was a senior research scientist. Of the original three researchers in the efforts Fig 5. John Sigwarth viewing the cameras on Polar with the cameras on board Dynamics Explorer 1, John Craven has departed to accept a faculty position at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. The new Polar cameras were large and heavily instrumented with onboard computers. These cameras are shown in the photograph of Figure 5 [left]. The person in the "space suit" is indeed John Sigwarth and he is sitting at the top of the 100-foot tall gantry which allows him to view the cameras. The cameras are encased within the largest rectangular box in front of him. The rest of the spacecraft is hidden below the cameras. The spacecraft and the cameras would be soon launched into a high-altitude orbit above the Northern Hemisphere. It would have a superb view of both the auroral lights and of the sunlit atmosphere.

These new cameras were capable of greatly extending the previous observations with Dynamics Explorer 1 in three important, independent ways. First of all the atmospheric holes could be observed with much greater spatial resolution which provides confirmation beyond any reasonable claims of "camera noise". Secondly, the sky in the vicinity of our planet could be monitored for bright trails due to the glow of oxygen from the disruption of some of the comets at very high altitudes of thousands of miles. Thirdly, the new cameras would allow optical detection of the fragments of water molecules as the cometary clouds plummeted into the atmosphere.

The Polar spacecraft and its cameras were successfully launched and the complex process of turning on these sophisticated cameras proceeded during the month of March 1996. John Sigwarth was at the control center at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland during this critical period. I will always remember a telephone conversation with John during which a lengthy discussion of camera voltages, currents and temperatures occurred. At the end of this conversation, John quietly said "Oh, yes, by the way, the atmospheric holes are clearly present in the images."

Although John and I knew that the above three confirmations were successful by late Fall of 1996 it was clear to us that we needed some "quiet time" to achieve a careful, thorough analysis. Our silence during this period of over a year after launch was greeted by most scientists with relief that the atmospheric holes and small comets must not exist. When the results were finally reported at a NASA-supported press conference at the American Geophysical Union meeting during May 1997 there was great turmoil and confusion in the scientific community and the announcements raced like a wildfire through the press. [Next Page]


Presidential Lecture, Part 1