Cosmic Collisions impact Jupiter
Posted on Sep 19, 2012 in News
Contrary to popular belief, the solar system isn’t a quiet and serene neighborhood in the suburbs of the Milky Way. At 11:35 UTC on Monday, September 10, a cosmic vagrant – be it a comet or asteroid – crashed into the atmosphere of Jupiter in a brilliant flash of light.
Dan Petersen, an amateur astronomy observing Jupiter, witnessed the impact with his own eyes. Because he did not have a camera attached to his telescope at the time, Petersen described the event on the astronomy forum CloudyNights.com, hoping for confirmation.
Luckily, George Bell, another amateur astronomer, just happened to be recording Jupiter when the wayward object impacted. In the video, a dazzling flash of light can be easily seen on the left edge of the limb of Jupiter, lasting for a second and then fading from view.
Impacts of comets and asteroids with Jupiter are of vital importance to life on Earth. Each collision with Jupiter is one fewer collision with Earth. An impact of an asteroid or comet with Earth will bring cataclysmic and apocalyptic destruction. An asteroid that measured a mere 100 meters wide had flattened over 830 square miles of forest in Siberia in 1908. 65 million years ago, an asteroid just 10 miles wide killed all dinosaurs, ushering in the age of mammals.
Were it not for the presence of Jupiter, such devastating collisions would be much more frequent. The strong gravitational pull of Jupiter clears out many celestial interlopers from the inner solar system, flinging them away from Earth. Other, incoming asteroids are not so lucky. They are pulled in by Jupiter’s mass, and consumed by the gas giant as they plummet into Jupiter’s atmosphere.
The most famous collision of an object with Jupiter is that of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in July 1994. In March of that year, professional astronomers Carolyn and Eugene Shoemaker and David Levy discovered the comet and found that it was captured by Jupiter’s gravitational field. Calculations of the comet’s trajectory showed that it will eventually impact Jupiter.
Between July 16 and July 22 of 1994, telescopes across the world, including the Hubble Space Telescope, were trained on the gas giant. The comet, torn apart into over 20 pieces by Jupiter’s pull, plummeted into the southern hemisphere of Jupiter. Each piece burnt in the atmosphere, leaving dark, black blotches, each bigger than Earth, on the cloud-tops visible for months to come.
The observations of amateur astronomers are vital to our continued understanding of the dynamics of the solar system. Because of the limited amount of time, professional astronomers cannot watch every nook and cranny of our cosmic backyard. Amateurs keep their watchful eyes on our planetary neighborhood, ever vigilant for wandering asteroids.
The impact on Jupiter is a reminder that the Solar System is not a peaceful place. Asteroid and comets wander in our proximity, and one day, one may just cross paths with not Jupiter, but with Earth.
Great article, hopefully it will scare up some more funding the for the space program! Probably won’t make this week’s paper though. I’m going to hang on to it!