Comets & Contagion
Cosmology - Astronomy - Astrobiology

Comets & Contagion
Viruses, Bacteria & Diseases from Space?

Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D.


For thousands of years peoples of Earth believed that comets were harbingers of doom, disease, and death, infecting men with a blood lust to war, contaminating crops, and dispersing disease and plague upon the people.

"Death comes with those celestial torches, which threaten earth with the blaze of pyres unceasing, since heaven and natureís self are stricken and seem doomed to share menís tomb" - Marcus Manilius, Astronomica, 10-20 A.D.

"In times of great upheaval rare ages have seen the sudden glow of flame through the clear air and comets blaze into life and perish" - Marcus Manilius, Astronomica, 10-20 A.D.

Ancient Chinese astronomers chronicled numerous episodes where comets preceded plague and disaster. Meticulous observations were compiled in 300 B.C. in a textbook known as the "Mawangdui Silk." It details 29 different cometary forms and the various disasters associated with them, dating as far back as 1500 B.C.

"Comets are vile stars. Every time they appear in the south, they wipe out the old and establish the new. Fish grow sick, crops fail, Emperors and common people die, and men go to war. The people hate life and don't even want to speak of it." -Li Ch'un Feng, Director, Chinese Imperial Astronomical Bureau, 648, A.D.

In Europe, the "Black Death" was linked to a comet as were other episodes of plague and pestilence. In the year 1519, a comet appeared in the skies over ancient Mexico, witnessed by Montezuma, the Aztec Emperor. That same year plague began to sicken and kill the native peoples, tens of millions subsequently dying of disease. Two continents were nearly emptied of its native people.

The comet, however, likely had nothing to do with this deadly contagion, for that same year, Cortes and his soldiers arrived off the Coast of Mexico, bringing with them plague and disease. The Aztec priests, however, believed that Cortez, the comet, and the contagion, had been sent by god.

In medieval Europe and colonial America, it was believed that comets were sent to Earth by god, or agents of the devil, to punish the people for their sins.

From November of 1680 to February of 1681, a comet blazed across the morning skies of New England, prompting the Reverend Increase Mather to deliver an incendiary sermon he called: "Heaven's Alarm to the World." The comet, Mather preached, was a sign of God's anger.

When a second comet appeared in 1682, Mather delivered a sermon, titled: "The Voice of God in Signal Providences: God in his providence doth order, as that sometimes, Blazing Stars are seen in heaven. Such stars are called comets from they stream like long hair... and strike a terror into the hearts of men that are spectators of them. Fearful sights are called signs in the scripture... they are signs that the Lord is coming forth out of his holy habitation to punish the world for their iniquityes. Tokens of God's Anger, they are Presages of great and publick Calamities."


In 1910, Haley's comet blazed across the skies, and 4 years later Europe was caught up in the fever of war. Thirty seven million would lose their lives by war's end, many killed not by bullets but plague.

On Saturday, March 9, 1918, the skies turned black in Kansas, and great winds filled the air with a stinking yellow haze. Men and women who had been healthy that morning, fell sick and died. A killer virus spread across the country, hospitals overflowed, death carts were heaped with corpses which were dumped into mass graves. Over 20 million people died world wide, among them 680,000 American dead.


There is no obvious link to Haley's comet. In fact, a more likely candidate is Comet Encke which made extremely close approaches to Earth on June 16, 1908, and again on October 27 1914, and was at perihelion on 1918. And with each approach, Comet Encke shed ice, rock and dust which streaked through the atmosphere of the Earth. Some scientists believe that a large piece of Comet Encke broke off, fell to Earth, and exploded above the Tunguska, Russia, in 1908, leveling forests for hundreds of miles.

On April 20th, 2007 comet Encke suffered was struck by a mass of material blasted from the corona of the sun which was so powerful it broke off the comet's tail and swept it away into deep space. In late June and early July and again in November, of that year pieces of comet Encke rained down upon the Earth.

There is as yet no way to determine if a comet played a role in the plague of 1918. However, it is now known that this epidemic began in birds which were the first to die, infected with some mysterious disease that fell from the sky.


In 2005, scientists from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C., resurrected the 1918 virus from bodies that had been preserved in the permanently frozen soil of Alaska. They soon discovered that a completely new virus had combined with a old virus, exchanging and recombining genes, creating a hybrid that transformed mild strains of the flu virus into forms far more deadly and pathogenic. They also confirmed that the 1918 Spanish flu virus originated in the sky, first infecting birds and then spreading and proliferating in humans.


Comets come in all sizes, the larger ranging from 20 kilometers (12 miles) to over 300 kilometers (186 miles) in diameter. Tiny moons comprised of soil, rock and metals, form the heart of a comet which is surrounded by frozen seas of water, dust, rocks, and ice. And where there is water, there is life. In fact, Comets are contaminated with large quantities of organic molecules which predate the origin of this solar system and which have as their source the instellar nebula (P. Ehrenfreund & K. M. Menten, 2002. From Molecular Cluds to the Origin of Life. In G. Horneck & C. Baumstark-Khan. Astrobiology, Springer, 2002). There is no reason to suspect that the organics were not produced by biological organisms.

When a comet approaches the sun, solar energy and blasts from the solar wind begins to heat, melt, and vaporize the surface layers of ice. The comet then sheds rocks, dust, and watery vapor and debris, which forms a tail that may come to extend millions of miles in length.

Not uncommonly, the comet's tail may cross the orbit of the Earth. When these rocks, dust, and watery ice strike the atmosphere, they often ignite, showering the Earth with "shooting stars." This is exactly what happened in 1910 when the Earth passed through the tail of Halley's Comet. Millions of pieces of debris impacted the atmosphere, lighting up the skies with flashes of light, and showering the planet with tons of cometary debris. In fact, over 2 million pounds of cosmic dust falls to Earth every day.

However, the smaller particles and any microbes and viral particles attached to them, do not burn up. Instead, they fall upon the upper atmosphere, and then slowly drift upon the air currents, sometimes staying aloft for years, crisscrossing the planet, gently falling downward, until finally making a soft landing on whatever is beneath them, be it ocean, river, animal, plant, or woman and man.

And attached to these particles of dust?


Bacteria and living spores have been recovered by NASA, the US Airforce, and military reconnaissance vehicles, at stratospheric heights of over 10 miles above the Earth. Thousands of distinct species and millions of trillions upon millions of trillions of bacteria thrive and flourish within the Earth's atmosphere. Tons of organic material from outside the solar system infiltrates the atmosphere. Like these organics some of these bacteria and viral particles may well have fallen to Earth.

Comets lose mass, first in the form of their watery, icy outer coats which stream outward creating the comet's spectacular tail. However, each time a comet orbits close to the sun it becomes smaller in size, until finally the rocky inner heart is protected by only a shell of ice which may be less than a few dozen feet in circumference.

It is at this point that a comet ceases to be a comet, but an asteroid. And asteroids, no longer firmly held together by water and ice, can break apart, becoming meteors, and these meteors may strike the Earth and its atmosphere. The larger chunks break apart, pieces burning up as they pass through the atmosphere, others fragmenting into smaller pieces still and crashing into oceans, land masses, polar ice caps, and shallow seas.

And within, dormant and frozen in ice, or dwelling and reproducing deep in the rocky heart, are microbes and viruses. Indeed, fifteen different meteors containing fossils of ancient microbes have in fact crashed to Earth [85-92]. Many of these meteors originated in the heart of a comet.


What sort of creatures could survive subzero temperatures deep within or miles beneath frozen ice? Trillions, including what are called "extremophiles." Bacteria such as M. Frigidum prefer ice cold enviornments, and a variety of microbes have been discovered living in the frozen ice of Antarctica, including at Lake Vostok.

Microbes hae been recovered from ice cores up to 400 m deep in the canadian arctic and at ground temperatures of -27 C in the Antarctica (8-10). Some of the cells date back to 3 million years. Even older cells have been found in the Antarctica and upon thawing renewed their physiological activity (D. A. Gilichinsky Permafrost Model of Extraterrestrial Habitat, In G. Horneck & C. Baumstark-Khan. Astrobiology, Springer, 2002).

Richard Hoover of NASA, discovered fungi, algae, cyanobacteria, nanobacteria, spores, diatoms, and protozoan in deep ancient ice cores over 4,000 years old, drilled from Lake Vostok, near the south pole. These creatures were found in association with ancient cosmic dust particles which had fallen from space. Moreover, microbes recovered from Lake Vostok increase in number with increasing numbers of dust particles (S. Abyzov et al., Microbiologiya, 1998, 67, 547).

Hundreds of complex species lay dormant, frozen in the ice, and deep within permafrost, only to awaken with the Spring thaws. In fact, "Permafrost can maintain life incomparably longer than any other known habitats (D. A. Gilichinsky Permafrost Model of Extraterrestrial Habitat, In G. Horneck & C. Baumstark-Khan. Astrobiology, Springer, 2002).

Microbes which flourish in the cold are this planets most successful colonizers. In fact, microbes dwelling in permafrost have a total biomass many times higher than those living in soil.

Nor are microbes the only creatures who live within frozen soil and ice. Eukaryotic cells are also found in permafrost (T. Vishnivetskaya et al. The Earth Cryosphere, 1997, 2, 71). Algae, mosses, viable seeds, and a variety of plants such lichens and snow bells can live and even blossom while buried for months beneath snow and ice. Complex animals and plants thrive in subzero temperatures 4 miles beneath the frigid antarctic ocean, at the bottom of the sea, under thousands of pounds of crushing, ice-cold ocean weight. In one recent deep ocean study, 500 new species were discovered 20,000 feet feet below the frozen surface, living in darkness, in frigid temperatures, and withstanding thousands of pounds of crushing ocean pressure over every inch of their bodies.

However, in contrast to complex animals and plants, bacteria and microbes can survive can frozen, deep within the permafrost for millions of years (E, Rivikina, et al.,m Geomicrobiology, 1998, 15, 187). Moreover, microbes which form spores in frozen conditions might live for billions of years (D. A. Gilichinsky Permafrost Model of Extraterrestrial Habitat, In G. Horneck & C. Baumstark-Khan. Astrobiology, Springer, 2002).

In fact they are perfectly adapted for a life on some frozen astral object, traveling through space. "The long term impact of subzero temperaturs should be regarded not as extreme and limiting but rather as a stabilizing factor supporting the viabilty of microorganisms" (D. A. Gilichinsky Permafrost Model of Extraterrestrial Habitat, In G. Horneck & C. Baumstark-Khan. Astrobiology, Springer, 2002).


Comets with their thick outer coats of frozen water and ice and a moon-sized planetary mass at their center, would offer a habitable environment for innumerable microbes and perhaps even a few complex species. And not just comets, but seven of the 9 planets and their moons, as well as asteroids are cryogenic in nature, that is, they are covered with a permafrost and permafrost must be a common feature of the cosmos.

Innumerable microbes could flourish within a cometary environment. Particularly Archae which are believed to be among the first to colonize this planet. Archae are different from bacteria in regard to cell wall composition, and coenzymes, and they can adapt to extremes in tempereature, salinity, and oxygen. They can live in permafrost if hydrogen is present as well as ammonia or nitrates and in the absence of organic material or oyxgen. Some would flourish deep within the comet's heart of rock and stone, an environment which might be much warmer than the surroundings. Others would become dormant, frozen in ice, awaiting only a change in the environment to awake, for in fact this is exactly what occurs on Earth.

And where did these comets come from?

The broken planets that long ago orbited the parent star which gave birth to our own. Life on Earth, came from other planets.