Thursday, March 31, 2016

Did Something Just Hit Jupiter?

A frame from Irish astro-imager John McKeon's video of Jupiter. Credit: John McKeon/YouTube

Amateur and professional astronomers around the world are trying to pin down the specifics of an apparent impact on Jupiter back on Mar. 17. Only within the past few days have two videos emerged showing a brief flash of light right on the edge of Jupiter's disk, near the boundary of the planet's bright Equatorial Zone and its tawny North Equatorial Belt.

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. 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 his video on YouTube, Gerrit Kernbauer was in Modling, Austria filming the planet using a Skywatcher Newton 200/1000 telescope on Mar. 17. And while the “seeing was not the best” he found a “strange light spot that appeared for less than one second” on Jupiter, according to his YouTube post.



Backing Kernbauer’s observation was separate amateur footage taken around the same time by John McKeon in Swords, Ireland. His video also shows a bright object near the planet’s surface.



Although McKeon did not write much about his experience, Kernbauer wrote on his YouTube page, “My only explanation for this is an asteroid or comet that enters Jupiters high atmosphere and burned up/explode very fast.”

Now planetary imaging specialist Marc Delcroix has obtained the raw videos, processed them to bring out extra detail, and refined the circumstances of the flash. He finds that the brightening lasted just over 1 second. But the timing is off a bit: in Kernbauer's video the flash began at 00:18:35 UT, whereas in McKeon's the onset is 9 seconds later.

Careful processing of the videos taken by Gerrit Kernbauer and John McKeon reveals more details about the flash's location. The System II coordinates of the impact site are 281.1° in longitude and +12.4° in latitude. Source: Marc Delcroix
Careful processing of the videos taken by Gerrit Kernbauer and John McKeon reveals more details about the flash's location. The System II coordinates of the impact site are 281.1° in longitude and +12.4° in latitude. Source: Marc Delcroix

Despite the time mismatch, the event appears to be real. Apparently the impacting object, be it an asteroid or comet, was rather small. "Nobody sees any debris field associated with that part of the atmosphere," notes Glenn Orton (Jet Propulsion Laboratory). Apparently mission managers decided against slewing the Hubble Space Telescope around to take a quick look.

But Mar. 17 impact, if the evidence for it holds up, becomes the fifth such event in the past decade. The largest of these occurred July 19, 2009, and it left a distinctly dark "powder burn" in Jupiter's upper atmosphere first spotted by Australian astro-imager Anthony Wesley.

That was followed by three lesser strikes on June 3, 2010 (recorded independently by Wesley and Christopher Go); on Aug. 10, 2010 (independently seen by Masayuki Tachikawa and Kazuo Aoki); and on Sept. 10, 2012 (seen visually by Dan Petersen and independently recorded by George Hall).

Counting the historic multiple-hit crash of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in July 1994, that's a grand total of six impacts on Jupiter in the past 22 year — with five of those in the past decade.

1 comment:

  1. Had it hit Earth, you wouldn't be reading this.

    ReplyDelete