Something slammed into Jupiter so hard it was visible from Earth
Alexandra Mae Jones, CTVNews.ca
Published Friday, August 9, 2019 6:16PM EDT
Last Updated Friday, August 9, 2019 11:05PM EDT
An amateur astronomer caught on camera the moment something huge slammed into Jupiter this week.
Photos and gifs posted to the Twitter account @ChappelAstro showed a bright flash towards the south of Jupiter’s equator, thrilling scientists and sky watchers alike.
Ethan Chappel, the man behind the Twitter account, didn’t know how special his footage was until he got home.
“I realized I caught the flash after I packed up the telescope for the night,” Chappel told CTVNews.ca over Twitter. He ran the images through a program called DeTeCt, written by Marc Delcroix, which is designed to pinpoint these types of impacts.
“I was super excited. Could not fall asleep until 7 AM!”
The possible impact took place on Wednesday at 4:07 UTC, or just after midnight in Eastern Standard Time.
Chappel posted two different animations of the flash, made out of the photos he’d imaged throughout the night. The second animation was sped up to show how fast the actual impact would’ve been—a quick flare of white, gone in a second.
The astronomical event was likely a case of a bolide: a bright meteor that explodes when it comes into contact with an atmosphere. It’s not uncommon for a planet of Jupiter’s size to attract meteors, but it’s not often that the moment one strikes is actually captured on camera.
This could’ve been a rare chance to see our solar system’s natural shield in action, according to science and technology specialist Dan Riskin.
Jupiter “may have saved us a hit,” he told CTV News Friday.
“People talk about Jupiter as this cosmic vacuum cleaner,” Riskin explained. “It’s so massive that it sort of brings in everything with its gravitational field, and so there are people who believe that life could never have even evolved on Earth if it weren’t for the way Jupiter just sucks up things like this and takes the impact for us.”
Although the white dot of impact looks small compared to the size of the planet, it’s important to remember that Jupiter is 11 times wider than Earth, and 300 times heavier. This means the impact flash of the object on Jupiter was likely hundreds of kilometres wide.
Chappel posted on Twitter that while there were no estimates yet for the size of the impact, it would’ve been smaller than the Earth.
“For reference the GRS (Great Red Spot) is slightly wider than Earth,” Chappel posted.
New photos released this week by NASA show the famous red spot—an endlessly churning storm that marks the face of the planet—in higher detail than ever. The photographs, unveiled on Thursday, were taken by the Hubble Space Telescope on June 27, and reveal more of the different swirling colours that make up the bands around the planet. Seeing more colours helps scientists identify the materials and properties of the different clouds, as the colour changes depending on the thickness of the ammonia ice clouds and the atmospheric pressure.
The new research also shows that the red spot may be shrinking, for the first time in centuries.
“Galileo saw (the Great Red Spot) when he first used a telescope to look at Jupiter way back in the 1600s,” Riskin said. “We’ve never known if it’s a permanent thing, or just a storm that will go away, and so this current research shows that it may well go away, and we’re just lucky to be able to see it.”
In the past, large impacts have left behind dark smudges known as “scars” on Jupiter’s clouds, such as in 1994, when the Hubble Space Telescope took photographs of the impact sites of a comet that fragmented above Jupiter.
According to Chappel’s Twitter, he took photos of Jupiter after the impact as well, and there’s no sign of an impact scar.
Chappel said that photographing the night sky is a hobby, but one he does “with a passion.” He’s been imaging the stars for six years and tweeting his finding for a little over a year, but he’s never caught an event like this on camera before.
And he’s aware he may never do it again.
“No one has captured two flashes yet,” he said.
For those interested in trying to catch an elusive impact flash themselves, Chappel posts all of his equipment on Twitter.
But at the right time of year, Riskin said you don’t need a telescope to admire the planet.
Jupiter is visible as a bright spot right next to the moon this summer.
“If you put a pair of binoculars on it, you may well be able to see some of its moons,” Riskin said. “It’s really a special thing to do, and it’s right there for us.”