Jupiter just took one for the team.
The gas giant appears to have experienced a pretty significant impact event and the flash of the extraterrestrial meteor was caught by amateur astronomers who just happened to be videoing Jupiter and its moons.
As the biggest and most massive planet in the solar system, the gas giant king isn’t unfamiliar with being hit by errant space rocks — Jupiter’s gravitational field is an interplanetary vacuum of sorts and is often viewed as the inner solar system’s protector. (Or is Jupiter a little more evil than that? We’re not entirely sure.) Any asteroid or comet that strays too close will be ripped to shreds and pulled into Jupiter’s unforgiving thick atmosphere at high speed.
According to Bad Astronomer Phil Plait, this latest Jupiter impact was reported by two amateur astronomers located in Austria and Ireland who saw the suspect flash on Jupiter’s limb at approximately the same time. It is unknown whether the flash was caused by an asteroid or a comet.
Having just one observer see the meteor would be interesting, but that would leave some ambiguity as to whether the flash was caused by a physical impact or a glitch in the observer’s camera CCD or some optical aberration in the telescope lens. But to have two observers seeing the event at the same time in the same place of Jupiter’s atmosphere is more than just chance. With more than one observer, the likelihood is pretty high that an asteroid or comet slammed into Jupiter on March 17.
See for yourself:
This footage was captured by “Gerrit” who is located in Mödling, Austria. The amateur astronomer only realized they had captured the flash after reviewing the video 10 days later. At the same time, John Mckeon, who was observing Jupiter from near Dublin, Ireland, also reported seeing the bright flash:
Videoing Jupiter isn’t an uncommon astronomical technique. Although on any given night you wouldn’t expect to see much action from the massive planet, the individual frames of a video are processed by astronomical imaging software and the individual frames are stacked to produce a high-resolution final image. This technique is used to remove the haze and turbulence caused by atmospheric effects. But very occasionally, these videos can capture the odd transient event, like a meteor flash.
Although seeing a bright flash across millions of miles of interplanetary space may give the impression that Jupiter was hit by something pretty big, as Plait mentions in his blog, the impactor wasn’t likely more than a few tens of meters wide. As Jupiter has a more powerful gravitational field than Earth, objects will hit the Jovian atmosphere around five-times faster than they hit Earth’s atmosphere. Greater velocity means more energy, so (from the kinetic energy equation E=1/2mv2) we’d expect an object hitting Jupiter to be carrying 25 times more energy than a comparable object hitting Earth’s atmosphere. This means 25 times more energy will be released on impact, producing a way bigger flash.
If you’re experiencing a little deja vu right now, you’re right, this certainly isn’t the first time amateur astronomers have witnessed Jupiter flashing.
In 2009, a significant impact was witnessed by amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley in Australia that, after some detective work, was found to be an asteroid impact. Then in 2010, Wesley was again looking in the right place at the right time to spot another large impact and confirmed by Philippines-based amateur astronomer Christopher Go.
But the biggest cometary carnage event in recorded history was chronicled by the Hubble Space Telescope when Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 fought with Jupiter’s gravity in July 1994, but ultimately got shredded, peppering the Jovian atmosphere with huge chunks of icy debris.
These impact events are critical for planetary scientists to understand just how often planets get hit by asteroids and comets, particularly Jupiter. Some theories suggest that Jupiter is Earth’s protector in some ways; its gravitational well prevents potential Earth-impacting asteroids or comets from causing mayhem. But other theories hint that Jupiter’s gravity may actually redirect some near-Earth object orbits into Earth’s path.
In this case it seems that Jupiter was being our defender, and amateur astronomers — once again — were key to this impact event’s discovery.
Source: Bad Astronomy