Giant Snowballs In Space? No, Says Researcher, They're Simply Black Snow On The TV Screen

December 09, 1997

San Francisco -- When University of Iowa space physicist Louis Frank presented his evidence last May, he had much of the science community shivering with anticipation. He claimed to have discovered 20- to 40-ton cosmic snowballs, the size of houses, pelting the Earth at the rate of 30,000 a day. What's more, Frank presented images he had captured of the giant snowballs.

But the snowballs may not exist. University of Washington geophysicist George Parks has analyzed Frank's ultraviolet (UV) camera images and has concluded that the white snow in space is no more than black "snow" on the television screen.

After a close analysis of one hour of data supplied by Frank, Parks says he and his collaborators are certain that Frank has been looking at "instrument noise." It is very similar, says Parks, "to the static you hear on your hi-fi."

Frank and Parks will debate the real vs. phantom snowballs here today at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco (Dec. 9 at 4 p.m.).

Frank first proposed his theory of the cosmic snowballs -- actually small comets -- in 1986, but the idea was widely discredited. Then, earlier this year, he presented evidence from the Polar satellite, which carries an instrument that can produce both UV and visible light images. Frank compared the same spots on both types of image and concluded that these were clear evidence of the existence of the comets.

Parks says that at first he was "agnostic" towards Frank's data. But when he saw the far more detailed images from the Polar camera he became suspicious. It was simply unlikely, he says, that the clusters of spots on the images could have been caused by snowballs in space. Parks began an analysis of his own images taken with the Ultraviolet Imager (UVI) on the NASA Polar satellite. There he found the same dark spots that Frank had found on his images.

He grew even more uneasy about Frank's analysis when he found that the UVI had recorded the same dark spots while pointed at a UV light in the laboratory.

When Parks began a minute examination of the images, made by breaking the clusters of spots down into tiny picture point, or pixels, he found statistical evidence that he was seeing not real events, but what he calls an "instrument artifact."

After Parks had detailed his analysis in an article for Geophysical Research Letters, Frank released one hour of data that overlapped with Parks' UVI images. Parks has made a comparison of the two and now believes, even more emphatically, that Frank has been attempting to interpret background noise.

What is causing the spots on the images? Park blames the very complexity of the cameras themselves, which consist of a number of parts, including optics, an image intensifier that includes a device for multiplying electrons, a TV screen and a light-gathering charge-coupled device. Parks suspects that the dark spots change character as the camera's high voltage is varied.

Parks claims that Frank has taken complex images and selected only one tiny area as evidence of the comets' existence. "He nevers shows the full image because it always looks corrupted by noise," he says.

Is Parks then denying the existence of cosmic snowballs? "The burden is on Frank, he's got to prove they exist," Parks says. "He is seeing things that are scientifically not permitted. It would, for example, be easy for me to say these dark spots are UFOs, but it would be up to me to prove it."

University of Washington

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