Between the hours of 6am and noon EDT on Monday, July 20, something smashed into Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. And here’s the scar to prove it.
First noticed as a dark blotch by amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley, monitoring the giant planet via telescope from Australia, the impact was soon confirmed via near-infrared imaging by NASA astronomers at JPL using the giant telescope at the Keck Observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii.
Although it hasn’t been proven exactly what hit Jupiter, this is reminiscent of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 incident from almost exactly 15 years ago, when a comet on course for Jupiter broke apart before impact and struck the planet as a string of smaller chunks. The scars from the collisions became visible from Earth as Jupiter rotated into view.
This is only a single impact, but the result seems to be the same: a dark visible smudge on Jupiter’s cloudtops and infrared images showing a large amount of heated material churned up from deep inside the planet.
“It could be the impact of a comet, but we don’t know for sure yet…It’s been a whirlwind of a day, and this on the anniversary of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 and Apollo anniversaries is amazing.” – Glenn Orton, JPL scientist
Scientists are using this opportunity to learn more about the composition and behavior of Jupiter’s atmosphere. Eventually the scar will disappear, being absorbed into the churning clouds of the gas planet. Being mostly atmosphere, there’s no solid surface to be damaged by an impact like this….even though the bruise is easily as large as our whole planet.
This is also a good example of how we are actually protected by the giant Jupiter, orbiting far beyond Mars and the asteroids. Objects coming toward the sun from the outer solar system that could have posed a danger to Earth are instead drawn to the giant planet, which can take a hit without flinching. So thanks Jupiter. Took one for the team.
UPDATE: read the associated blog post from the JPL scientists here.
Image: NASA/JPL/Infrared Telescope Facility