I first came across this research when I unexpectedly attended a lecture given by Thomas Van Flandern. It was 2004 and I was at a conference in the Washington D.C. area. A delegate and member of the conference crew I had befriended called Jim Peters suggested I go to the evening lectures that included an opening one by Thomas Van Flandern. However, I was tired and I had intended to take a break from lectures and retire to my room after a long day. I was still a little jet lagged. However, this lecture, Jim told me, was a lecture not to be missed.
Dr Thomas Van Flandern was a professional astronomer who had spent twenty years of his career working for the U.S. Naval Observatory (USNO) in Washington DC and had done consultancy work for JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), NASA’s ‘go to’ private research and development group.
In his career Van Flandern had held senior positions with the USNO including Chief of the Research Branch and Chief of the Celestial Mechanics Branch. However, it was his support for theoretical work that was in conflict with mainstream ideas eventually led him to part ways with the organisation. After a period of consultancy work he founded his own research group called Meta Research in 1991. He believed that there was a better way to conduct science than within the current paradigm where competition over funding resulted in bias towards established scientific beliefs.
In his lecture he presented evidence supporting his advanced theories regarding the nature of gravity, something called the Exploded Planet Hypothesis and he additionally went on to show the audience in 2004 the recent images from Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft that showed fascinating evidence of a Mars unlike one I had ever seen before. The potential evidence for artifacts on Mars was not new for me. What was new was the background to the research, what it meant and the corroboration that continued to happen – something that shouldn’t have been the case should these mystery objects have been natural in origin – and not the product of some long lost Martian Civilisation. More intriguing than that however was the evidence of existing plant life on the surface of Mars. Green features that, in some cases, ebb and flow with the changing martian environment and the changing seasons.
However, the topic I am going to present for you now is a short summation of the origins of the Exploded Planet Hypothesis propounded by Thomas Van Flandern. This work that would ultimately lead him to new revelations about the planet Mars that included the idea that Mars was once a satellite in orbit around another planet. Could Mars have once been a moon of a larger planet that exploded? First though, we will look at the origins of the idea that planets can and have exploded in the past.
Most of the evidence for this is from our own solar system of course. However, our story starts with the observation of a distant star many years ago… I say “star”. But, was it really a star?
The year was 1975. The first of NASA’s Viking Orbiters had been launched only nine days earlier, onboard a Titan rocket and was destined for great things after its 10 month voyage to the red planet, Mars. On this particular night however, back on Earth, something unusual was seen in the heavens.
It was first seen by stargazers in Japan, then, as darkness fell over Asia and then Europe and finally North America. Skywatchers saw something unusual while looking up at the constellation of Cygnus (The Swan), a constellation also known as the Northern Cross; a constellation which like all the other constellations we casually assume goes on indefinitely, unchanging with the passage of time. Yet, on this night, something happened to Cygnus.
Cygnus appeared to acquire a new star. One never before seen. This new star brightened throughout the night to become the second brightest star in the constellation of Cygnus. It was duly named “Nova Cygni 1975” and it remained visible in Cygnus for weeks before fading away, leaving no sign that it was once there at all.
While Nova Cygni 1975 was named “nova” – meaning a new star – it is believed by astronomers that it was more than likely a dying star rather than some newborn shining sun. A star that underwent a great explosion. Believed to be the fate of those stars, including our own sun, who, after consuming all of their fuel, can either implode (collapse in on themselves) and become a dwarf star or explode violently in a final burst of energy that scatters their remnants out into interstellar space, and their light out into the great dark beyond.
However, there is an unusual feature that some astronomers have noticed about some of these novas. A great many of them are explosions of previously unseen stars that are in orbit around seemingly ordinary stars. The giveaway is that the expanding gas shell has a significant relative velocity to the known visible star.
Astronomers have made the assumption in the past that these exploding objects are invisible, dwarf companion stars that have exploded at the end of their lifetime. By the beginning of 2019 however, the number of exoplanets discovered to date was approaching 4,000. What we have learned from NASA’s Kepler mission is that stars have more orbiting them than just companion stars. As the search for exoplanets continues, we have come to realise that stars with orbiting planets are pretty much the norm.
As for the lifespan of planets, in the mid 20th century it felt like a safe bet to suggest that planets would survive as long as their parent star. However, discoveries found within our own solar system now suggest that this may not always be the case. Sometimes planets, it seems, like their stellar counterparts, can occasionally explode.
The Original Planet V
Our solar system is missing one planet. Strangely, many people will recall childhood memories of reading books about the Solar System; with those books including pictorial representations of our Solar System with its star (our Sun), the planets and a band of minor planets that became known as asteroids, given the collective label “The Asteroid Belt”, sandwiched between the planet Mars and Jupiter.
Some of you may even remember children’s books, as I do, that showed a separation between the asteroid belts of and their neighbouring planets; with one belt midway between Mars and Jupiter and another touching the orbit of Mars. Perhaps you thought as I did, ‘oh, there’s a planet missing’ and, with the innocence of a child (and perhaps one a little influenced by the movie Star Wars), reasoned ‘maybe there was one there once upon a time’ and asked ‘is that’s where the asteroid belt came from?’
In astronomy, the idea that there was a missing planet was first hinted at in 1772 when astronomer Daniel Titius became the first to notice a curious fact relating to the spacing between the planets. He noticed that, of the six planets known to him, each was at a distance from the Sun of approximately twice that of the last – with one glaring exception. There was a planet missing in the region between Mars and Jupiter; according to this mathematical relationship.
It was astronomer Johann Bode who later published this relationship that became known as Bode’s Law in 1779. At that time however it was not much more than a curiosity. A supposed law of nature that nature hadn’t bothered adhering to. Then, three years later in 1781, British astronomer William Herschel discovered a new planet out beyond Neptune. He named this new planet Uranus.
Previously, astronomers had not paid much credence to Bode’s Law. No doubt the missing planet was nothing more than a quirk of circumstance; little more than random positions standing out only because of the low number of data points (the six planets) that Bode had worked with. However, Bode’s Law had predicted the presence of a 7th planet orbiting the Sun at approximately twice the distance from the Sun as the 6th planet Neptune. Lo and behold, if Hershel’s new planet wasn’t at a distance from the Sun of about twice that of Neptune!
That a prediction of the existence of a planet and its approximate orbit around the sun, that was later confirmed to hold up, added new interest in Bode’s Law. Astronomers of the late 17th century concluded that Bode’s Law must indeed indicate that a planet should exist between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. It was simply the case, it was believed, that the planet was yet to be discovered. Discovering this missing planet predicted to be in an orbit between Mars and Jupiter became a goal of many astronomers during the rest of the 18th century.
Then, on January 1st 1801, the first day of the 19th century, italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi discovered a planet. Given the name Ceres, this new planet was found to orbit the Sun in the region between Mars and Jupiter, as predicted by Bode’s Law. However, this new object was so incredibly small and its orbit so unusually tilted that it was clear that this object was very unlike any planet seen before. Before the year was out, there was another surprise in store for the astronomical community when another planet was discovered at a similar approximate distance from the Sun as Ceres; a distance predicted by Bode for the missing planet.
The appearance of this new planet, named Pallas, led its discoverer, Heinrich Olbers, to jump to a prediction of how it came to be. Despite basing his evidence on this aforementioned information alone, Olbers theorised that the true planet of that orbit had exploded, leaving these two planets, which were in fact pieces of that former planet. He correctly predicted that not only would many more pieces of this exploded planet be found, but they would all have similarly odd shaped orbits, and that they would vary in brightness as they spun because the fragments would be of irregular shape. Olbers went on to predict the best places to search for fragments of this lost planet and he discovered the fourth of the minor planets called Vesta, on March 19th of 1807.
That the missing planet between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter had once existed but somehow had been destroyed, and now only fragments of it remained scattered across its former orbit, began making sense. The predictions about the nature of the fragments (then known as minor planets and later to become known as asteroids) added credence to the hypothesis that the fifth planet from the sun – Planet V – had exploded. Only when this theory began to tread on the toes of established theories held by certain prestigious scientists did the idea fall into disrespect.
In 1796, the French scholar Marquis de Laplace (real name Pierre-Simon Laplace) published his book Exposition du systeme du monde which was a treatise on the current state of cosmological thought. And in the book, which is regarded as the most important book on mechanics after Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, Laplace introduced his new theory about the formation of the solar system. His nebular hypothesis stated that a large and diffuse, slowly rotating cloud of interstellar gas underwent gravity initiated contraction to form the solar system. With his nebula hypothesis he had independently come to a similar conclusion to earlier astronomers, suggesting that solar systems form from gaseous nebulae.
Problems for the Exploded Planet Hypothesis began when another French astronomer, Louis Lagrange, developed Heinrich Olbers’ Exploded Planet Hypothesis further to explain the origin of comets.
Lagrange had realised that extremely long, elongated orbits would be an expected by-product of some of the material from an exploded planet. The prediction that remnants of an exploded fifth planet would be projected into extremely long elongated orbits around the Sun was a very good match for the description of comets. This led proponents of the Exploded Planet Hypothesis into conflict with the Marquis de Laplace, whose nebular theory had already neatly described the origin of comets.
It’s interesting to consider that in addition to being a seasoned mathematician and astronomer Laplace was an adept at politics, who reportedly managed to stay on the good side of the countries rulers throughout the French revolution, the Napoleonic era and the return of the monarchy (who had given him the title of Marquis).
After the French Revolution, Lagrange and Laplace both held positions at the newly formed Bureau des Longitudes, an establishment created to coordinate the work of observatories and also intended as a symbol of the new Republic’s support for the advancement of science; and Laplace had been instrumental in the institution’s inception. Some of his colleagues however had accused Laplace of monopolising the bureau’s research activities.
The astronomer Delambre, Director of the Paris Observatory, gives us his perspective of Laplace’s character in stark contrast to that of the elder scientist Lagrange. In speaking of Laplace, Delambre states:
“One should never place a mathematician at the helm of an observatory, for he will neglect all observations except for those needed to test his formulae… There would have been no difficulty at all if the mathematicians had had Lagrange’s character. Who had his opinions, but never imposed them. ” – Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre
It was perhaps Laplace’s political acumen, his ability to persuade people of is point of view, and perhaps his ability to attack opponents of his ideas (over and above any scientific basis) that ultimately led to Olber’s and Lagrange’s Exploded Planet Hypothesis being ostracised from science for nearly 200 years. Even by the mid 20th century the Exploded Planet Hypothesis was marginalised within mainstream astronomy.
A definitive treatise on meteorites was published in 1948. In the paper on “The Composition of Meteoric Matter: III. Phase Equilibria, Genetic Relationships and Planet Structure”, published in the Journal of Geology, its authors concluded that meteorites were once part of a larger planet.
However, by the 1960’s the Exploded Planet Hypothesis was still on the sidelines as an unacceptable idea. At that time professional astronomers generally believed that the thousands of minor planets orbiting between Mars and Jupiter were simply parts of a planet that never formed, rather than one that once exploded into pieces. In 1972 however, work by the British astronomer Michael Ovenden began a challenge to that assumption.
Michael Ovenden, Professor of Astronomy at the University of British Columbia in Canada, was a specialist in orbital dynamics. He developed a law similar to Bode’s Law that included the spacing between planets as well as their major satellites. In 1972, Ovenden’s work based on computer modelling of the Solar System resulted in his prediction that, not only was there a missing planet between Mars and Jupiter, but that this missing planet must have been a giant planet of a similar size to Saturn. The missing planet would have had, according to Ovenden, a mass much larger than the total mass of all the minor planets; a mass of about ninety times the mass of the Earth.
The implications of this were profound. Previously astronomers did not consider that the event that destroyed the missing planet may have been an event of enormous energy. Ovenden’s work opened astronomers up to the idea that the explosion had ejected a significant amount of the debris from the planet out of our solar system leaving only a small fraction remaining in the asteroid belt. With this revelation the significance of cometary orbits became much clearer.
Thomas van Flandern, while working at the US Naval Observatory proposed a theory, published in the science journal Icarus in 1978, based on his study of the orbit of very long period comets. In the paper he presented evidence that all long period comets originate simultaneously in our solar system five million years ago. He theorised that long period comets are fragments from a planetary explosion that failed to escape the gravitational pull of our solar system and slowly began raining back towards our inner solar system. Eventually, many long period comets orbits around the Sun would become perturbed by the planets into shorter period comets or were flung out of our solar system entirely.
Van Flandern suggested that if a planet had exploded between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter then debris would be scattered across the entire solar system. However, in only about 100,000 years, Van Flandern suggests, interactions with Jupiter (which would have swept up material or tossed a significant amount of it out of our solar system entirely) would leave only two kinds of debris that could survive over long periods of time for us to discover.
One type of this debris is the collection of pieces scattered between Mars and Jupiter that didn’t come close to any planet and survive to this day as the minor planets of the asteroid belt. The other type are those pieces, remaining to be found, that would have been thrown to great distances from the Sun with no chance of interacting with the planets until they are pulled back to the inner solar system and toward the Sun. He suggests that some of these pieces have returned to the inner solar system for the first time in only the last 100,000 years and the planets have not yet had time to perturb these long period orbit objects into shorter orbits and cleaned them up.
Van Flandern states that “The amazing thing is that comets match the description! Perhaps the most amazing of all, those that are visiting us for the first time since their birth are traveling on orbits with periods of three million years. We therefore know that if comets did originate with planetary break up they were born just that many years ago, which tells us when the planetary explosion took place.”
The evidence in support for the Exploded Planet Hypothesis can be found throughout our solar system amongst:
- planetary spacings (in laws of Bode and Ovenden),
- in comets where there is a statistical tendency for their orbits to emanate from a common point (between Mars and Jupiter) about three million years ago,
- the minor planets that show imprints of an explosive event similar to that observed with explosions of manmade satellites in Earth’s orbit,
- in meteorite evidence where meteorites show evidence of their origin and formation in high pressure or high temperature environments (tiny diamonds have been occasionally reported in meteorites) and also meteorites show evidence of exposure to an event of enormous energy (conventionally considered to be a supernova event).
Evidence of a Blast-wave
Saturn’s third largest moon, Iapetus was discovered on the 25th of October 1671 by Giovanni Cassini. Cassini noticed that he was only able to observe Iapetus on the western side of Saturn. After periodically observing this new moon orbiting Saturn through his telescope, he noticed the moon did not appear on the eastern side of Saturn as he had expected. He surmised that the moon was simply darker on its surface on one side and that the moon was in tidal lock with Saturn – so that it always showed the same face to its parent planet. This he eventually confirmed when he used an improved telescope in 1705.
The dramatic nature of Iapetus was revealed by a NASA spacecraft named Cassini-Huygens after a fly-by of the moon on September 10th, 2007. Images returned to earth showed the two tone nature of Iapetus, heavy cratering and a strange feature like a wall.
The Exploded Planet Hypothesis explains the two-tone nature of the surface as being a result of the very slow rotation of the moon. The tidal lock of Iapetus to Saturn means that the moon’s rotation takes several weeks to complete. The Exploded Planet Hypothesis suggests that a blast-wave with a duration of a week would have spread out throughout the solar system leaving impacting material on the planets and moons that it passes. In the outer solar system only one body rotates slower than about two weeks. Iapetus takes about eighty days to complete a rotation and therefore, as the theorised blast-wave reached it, it deposited dark carbonaceous material on only one side of the moon.
In addition to the blast-wave evidence showing uniquely on only one side of the body of Iapetus, supporting evidence for a blast-wave comes from the boundary of the areas between the light and dark regions. At the edges of the dark material we find evidence of low angle incident impacts grazing across the surface; showing up as linear features.
Further evidence for these events are found upon the Earth in the Cretaceous–Tertiary (KT) Boundary where tektite meteorites are found, and also in asteroids and comets where Van Flandern first predicted that asteroids would be found with satellites. This is because they are debris from an explosion and every large mass with a significant gravitational field will trap smaller objects in the field of explosion debris.
Asteroids and Comets
In the Exploded Planet Hypothesis comets and asteroids are identical in their origin from the explosion. It is simply the environment that they experience since the explosion that gives rise to their known differences. Asteroids being closer to the Sun have lost most of their volatile (easily evaporated or sublimated) chemicals and so have lost any organic compounds and surface water ice. Whereas comets, that are returning to the inner solar system for the first time, will have retained those volatile materials due to their being in the colder outer reaches of the solar system.
Van Flandern predicted that, when spacecraft visit asteroids they would find circular asteroids would still have their debris in intact boulder fields; whereas elongated objects (such as Eros) he predicted would have roll marks where boulders that were once slowing orbiting satellites of the asteroid will have rolled over the surface before coming to a stop on the surface. NASA’s Near Mission in February 2000 visited the asteroid named Eros where it found evidence of these roll marks it’s surface; where orbiting satellites (debris) eventually touched and rolled across the surface of Eros before coming to a stop.
Meteor Storms differ from meteor showers in that they involve thousands of meteorites being seen per minute. The Exploded Planet Hypothesis allowed a new model for predicting these events. In 1999 in Cyprus, in 2000 in the Eastern US and in 2002 and 2003 in Guam, Van Flandern’s Meta Research group were able to make the most accurate predictions of times, rates and location than had been made by astronomers using other models. It predicts storms coming from the August Perseids meteor showers starting in about 2028.
Multiple Exploded Planets
It is believed that during the 4.5 billion year lifetime of the solar system there have been up to six major explosions and several minor explosion events. There have been five mass extinction events on Earth with the most recent being 65 million years ago at what is called the KT boundary. Planet V, the parent of Mars, is believed to have exploded 65 million years ago. Prior to the Exploded Planet Hypothesis it was known that this extinction event was global in scale and involved 14 known impact craters. There are hot zones of radioactivity associated with these and an episode of volcanism in India that created the Indian Subcontinent. There is also evidence for a single global fire where only Antarctica was spared, indicating that the phenomena came from space and the axis was tilted such that Antarctica was facing away from the incoming blast.
Late Heavy Bombardment
In mainstream astronomy the appearance of the Late Heavy Bombardment period in our solar system’s history remains something of an enigma. This was a period 3.9 billion years ago where a flux of objects impacted upon the terrestrial planets; a record for which is preserved in the cratering on each of the terrestrial planets Venus, Earth and Mars. In evaluating this period astronomer P. Weisman tells us that “[an] essential requirement of any explanation for this is that the impactors be ‘stored’ somewhere in the solar system until they are suddenly unleashed about 4 [billion years] ago.”
Unable to identify a source of impactors from amongst planetesimals left over from the formation of the protoplanets that formed during the accretion of the solar nebular, Weisman informs us that “a plausible explanation for the late heavy bombardment remains something of a mystery.” Further to this he suggests that “[it] appears likely that the late heavy bombardment is not the tail off of planetary accretion but rather is a late pulse superimposed on the tail off”.
It is the explanation of proponents of the Exploded Planet Hypothesis that this late pulse of impactions towards the end of accretion of the solar disk could very well be from a reservoir created by the destruction of a planet. There may have been earlier events similar to this period of heavy bombardment. However, any record of that would not be easily discernible in the cratering record.
The asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter contains two classes of distinguishable objects. The inner asteroid belt objects (closer to the orbit of Mars) are distinguished by their iron rich layers of rock while the outer belt objects are of the carbonaceous chondrite type. The nebular hypothesis leads astronomers to suppose that these differences are the result of the separations from the consolidating accretion disk. However, this fails to adequately explain the evidence for formation of rock at high temperatures and pressures and the existence of salt water in asteroids; whose composition appears to have more in common with material formed through geological process rather than coalescence in space. The differences however can arguably be more easily explained as remnants of two distinctly different planetary bodies. Their own formation from the solar nebular would ultimately account for the individual planetary characteristics and the corresponding material from their “break-up” or destruction.
Two further asteroid belts lay beyond the orbit of Neptune; the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. Within the Oort Cloud there is also evidence demonstrating bands of objects of distinguishable characteristics also exist. Again, could these be the result of planets that formed and then exploded?
© Anthony Beckett 2019