A New Series Investigates Novel Theories that Challenge the Established Order
It is said that science advances one funeral at a time. Or, as Max Planck put it, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” In other words, “settled science” can be remarkably stubborn—even in the face of new evidence. Unthwarted, new theories—some more radical than others—continue to be promulgated, and they abound. In this new series, we offer for your consideration a sampling of such assumption-smashing theories.
Take, for example, some new thinking about Uluru. For over a century, geologists have affirmed that the strange rock sitting in the middle of the Australian outback is the result of a sandstone plate that, over an immense span of time, was uplifted vertically to form its present, monolithic, appearance. But, could it have had a more sudden, astronomical, origin? Could Uluru (formally known as Ayers Rock) actually have come from outer space? Could it be the nucleus of a comet that fell to Earth many millions of years ago when the surface of central Australia was covered by an inland sea?
In the article that follows, British science writer, artist, and photographer, Jess Artem, offers compelling reasons why the rock’s origin may better be explained from an astronomical perspective, rather than a geological one.
Did Uluru Come From Space?
By Jess Artem
First, and perhaps most importantly, Uluru is the right size. Most cometary nuclei range in size from approximately I km to around 3 kms. Uluru being 3.6 km long by 1.9km wide and approximately 10 km in circumference is, surprisingly, just the right size for a cometary nucleus. Like an iceberg, most of the mass of this monolith is buried beneath the surface and is thought to extend some 2.5 km.
Another important clue is evidence of surface melting. The outer skin of the rock does show evidence of melting in places, as would be expected being heated to several thousand degrees as it plunged through the Earth’s atmosphere. We can safely discount the possibility that this was caused by melting in the heat of Australian outback! (See photos 1 and 2)
Some 600 million years ago the central part of Australia was covered by an inland sea. This could have facilitated a relatively soft splashdown if the comet’s nucleus came in at an oblique angle; any resulting crater would have been filled and eroded by water flooding back in relatively quickly. Is there any evidence of a crater today? Photos from space appear to show the possible remains of a rim-like structure, as seen in photos 3 and 4.
A further feature of the rock is its homogeneity, and, per Wikipedia, a “. . . lack of jointing and parting at bedding surfaces, leading to the lack of development of scree slopes and soil.” There is some iron in the composition of Uluru. If this melted on the surface during entry through the earth’s atmosphere, and then cooled quickly on contact with water, it might seal the surface from future erosion. From an astronomical perspective, then, perhaps this lack of scree slopes, jointing, and parting around the circumference at ground level may not be so surprising. The cometary nucleus landed intact and water, displaced by the impact, quickly flowed back in and filled the crater with sand and sediment.
There is ample evidence at ground level to shows that waves have eroded cave walls, as is seen in photo 5.
Did the rock appear slowly, as envisioned by geologists, into a pre-existing sea? If this was the-slow-geological origin, one would expect to see evidence of water erosion over the entire rock’s surface from top to bottom. As we don’t see evidence of wave-like water erosion over the entire rock (it appears only at base level), this would tend to rule out a slow emergence.
If, on the other hand, it appeared suddenly (from space) and got wedged in the sea bed, waves of water lapping at what is presently ground level would, or could, form the wave caves we see today because the rock would remain immovable in its impacted position.
Photo 6 shows that the interior of the rock appears to be composed of a honeycomb-like structure—rather like chocolate-covered Maltesers (and, also like a Malteser, covered by a thin melted skin). Not only would this porous material make it comparatively light (compared to a solid iron meteorite of the same size), but it could also hold a large quantity of water, or, water ice. It is hard to reconcile this honeycomb-like structure of the rock if it had formed under sedimentary pressure over millions of years.
As the comet approached the inner Solar System, solar heating would cause ice locked into the honeycomb interior near the surface to melt, expand, and be forced to escape via the strings of vent holes running parallel across the surface. Most of the vent holes are now filled in due to sediment build-up over millions of years but, also, probably by melting of the outer skin when the object plunged through the Earth’s atmosphere.
Could a space rock with the honeycomb-like structure of Uluru (which is porous and relatively light) survive a heated passage through the Earth’s atmosphere? Most astronomers would probably say no, because it is believed cometary nuclei are just a loosely bound conglomeration of rocks and ice and this would simply fall apart and disintegrate due to extreme entry heating. However, if the nucleus of the comet had a honeycomb-like structure, as we find on Uluru, and had ice trapped deep inside, It might very well survive the brief (two or three minutes) passage to Earth. As anyone knows, deep frozen ice is an extremely hard and durable substance. Furthermore, iron particles in the sandstone composition of the rock might act, upon melting, as a kind of natural heat shield preserving the frozen water ice inside.
Geologists claim the parallel grooves running around the rock are simply sedimentary layers turned 90 degrees from the horizontal. Closer inspection reveals they are more likely formed by volatiles escaping from vent holes in the surface as the rock at one time rotated in space.
If the nucleus was rotating as it travelled through space, the grooves cut by the escaping water vapour and gases would naturally follow the axis of rotation. This is apparently what we see today in photos 7, 11, and 12. There are grooves eroded by rain water around the circumference, but they are random and quite unlike the straight parallel lines of grooves running across the main body of the rock.
The news report in Nature (July 2015), that comet 67P has “sink holes” that are “unambiguously related to the emission of water vapour, gas and other volatiles” would tend to support this view. Is there any evidence of sink holes on Uluru? Yes, there is. Several such features can be seen on the top of the rock. This would seem to provide additional evidence that we are, in fact, looking at the nucleus of a comet. (See photos 8, 9, 10).
It is interesting to note that the predominant grooves emanating from the holes nearly always appear only on one side. The width of the groove also often matches the diameter of the hole. Why, and how, could this happen? One probable answer is that at one time the object was rotating. If Uluru was once tumbling through space, and matter—water, gases dust etc.—was being ejected via the holes we see today, it would naturally blow back over the surface away from the forward axis of rotation. (See photos 11 and 12.)
Photo 13 shows rain falling on the surface of the rock, but it doesn’t appear to follow the direction of the parallel grooves. This indicates that the parallel grooves running around the surface must have been formed earlier and by some method other than simply rain water over the course of time.
Finally, take a look at Phobos, the innermost satellite of Mars. This object is some three times the size of Uluru (the area shown is about half a kilometre across), but it appears to have a similar system of grooves and vent holes running in parallel around its surface. It is also of low density. Moreover, the Soviet spacecraft Phobos 2 detected a faint but steady out gassing from Phobos. Could this (also) be a comet’s nucleus that has “run out of steam”—the out gassing being the vestiges of its once icy core—and now sits orbiting the red planet, whereas the cometary nucleus we call Uluru crashed to the surface of ours?
Why hasn’t Uluru been viewed from an astronomical perspective before? The answer probably lies with three reasons: (1) Aerial and satellite imagery wasn’t largely available until recently, (2) Images of cometary nuclei certainly haven’t been available until very recently, and (3) it is simply the entrenched opinion of geologists that the rock was uplifted and folded almost vertically from an underground sandstone plate. In short, until recently, we’ve simply lacked any astronomical references with which to compare it. Now, thanks to close-up images of asteroids and cometary nuclei, we do.
If Uluru did come from space, where in space might it have originated? As it is composed largely of sandstone—and the planet Mars features a lot of sandstone—might it be of Martian origin?
If this were the case, the only way it could have reached Earth would be by way of ejection from the surface of Mars following a very energetic impact with an asteroid. Mars has one of the largest impact craters in the solar system, the Hellas crater in the southern part of the planet (see photo 15). This massive crater is 2,300 kms wide and some 7kms deep. To make a crater this large, it is estimated the impactor must have been at least 100 kms in size. It is also noteworthy that a part of the crater floor is found to have a curious honeycomb-like terrain—similar to what appears to be the structural composition of Uluru. Could this huge impact have hit a sandstone cliff, for example, and ejected kilometre-sized chunks of rock into space? If it did, and the porous rocks contained water ice trapped in the interior, then we have all the ingredients for the making of a comet!
In this scenario, the rock (Uluru) is ejected from the surface of Mars by the asteroid impact and enters an elliptical orbit around the inner solar system. As the rock periodically neared the sun, trapped water ice in the interior would melt and be forced out of the nucleus via sink holes in the surface to form the evaporation trails we see as the comet’s tail. As observed earlier, we see evidence of these sink holes on Uluru.
Is there any way to prove whether or not Uluru is the extinct nucleus of a comet? Short of excavating the 2.5 kilometres underneath it to see if the parallel strings of vents and sink holes continue all the way around the object, it may be difficult to prove. Perhaps another possibility might be to drill to the centre and take samples of core material to see if there is any evidence of fossilised extraterrestrial organisms present. Both these options are unlikely to be permitted. Either way, when the observations outlined here are compared to what we today know about comets and their nuclei, it might be better to assume Uluru came from outer space rather than out of the ground.
At the end of the day, it would do no harm to the Australian tourism industry if it did. “Visit Uluru, folks, and see the nucleus of comet that fell to earth millions of years ago!”
About the Author
Jess Artem is the author of MirrorScope, a novel set in the world of astronomy, as well as several essays on cosmology and a number of photo books published via Blurb.com. His art has been show cased on Space.com. The author received a citation in astronomer Halton C. Arp’s book, Seeing Red: Redshifts, Cosmology and Academic Science, p.219, for his contribution to: “Mass Quantization in Quasars, Planets and Particles.” He lives in Tenerife, Canary Islands.
The content of this article is Copyright © 2018, by Jess Artem. Used with permission.