Mysterious Smash on Jupiter Leaves an Earth-Sized Scar

By Eliza Strickland | July 21, 2009 10:57 am

Jupiter scarJupiter is sporting a new, Earth-sized scar near its south pole, and NASA has confirmed that the gas giant was thumped by a massive impact over the past few days. The discovery was made Sunday night by a Australian computer programmer who uses his spare time to stargaze with his backyard telescope, and today NASA declared that the dark spot is definitely not a weather system, and is indeed evidence of a collision. It’s not yet known exactly what smacked into Jupiter; astronomers say it could have been an unknown comet, or a stray piece of ice.

This is only the second time such an impact has been observed. The first was almost exactly 15 years ago, when more than 20 fragments of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 collided with the gas giant. “This has all the hallmarks of an impact event, very similar to Shoemaker-Levy 9,” said Leigh Fletcher, an astronomer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab…. “We’re all extremely excited” [New Scientist].

The discovery was a lucky break, says amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley, who first spotted the crash site. He was observing Jupiter until about midnight on Sunday, but then ducked inside to watch a bit of golf and cricket. When he came back outside half an hour later, a dark spot had rotated into view. “On Friday night I was imaging the same area that I was imaging Sunday night so I could tell pretty quickly when I saw this black mark coming into view that it was something that wasn’t there when I last looked two days before”[Discovery News], Wesley says.

Wesley alerted professional astronomers across the world, and a group of NASA astronomers set to work at the Infrared Telescope Facility at the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. What they saw was something that bore no resemblence to any weather system ever seen on Jupiter. The researchers drew their conclusions from a near-infrared image of the upper atmosphere above the impact site. An impact would make a splash like a stone thrown into a pool, scattering material in the atmosphere upwards. This material would then reflect sunlight, appearing as a bright spot at near-infrared wavelengths. And that’s exactly what the team saw. “Our first image showed a really bright object right where that black scar was, and immediately we knew this was an impact” [New Scientist], says NASA scientist Glenn Orton.

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Image: NASA

  • robot makes music

    Which just goes to reinforce the knowledge that it’s only a matter of time before something large hits us again.

    Hopefully it’ll be a long ways off.

  • Robin

    …and imagine if there was life on Jupiter. It would all be wiped out now.

  • torres

    Just goes to show that we all can contribute to science today. Good lookin out.

  • Kinda scared

    Im in a state of fear over this.
    It really wasn’t long ago I was hearing of shoemaker leve9 smash into Jupiter. That does not seem like unlikely odds were in play there, and im aware the planet Jupiter functions as a sort of solar system shield/vacume.

    Its just really humbling I guess….scorch marks the size of our planet and al.

  • dolores doolittle

    All the weird things going on out there that we Don’t notice, too – fascinating.

    Watching the Moon Landing again on Monday was amazing – as Armstrong dipped a toe off the ladder and commented (roughly), “Seems sort of powdery – I’m going to jump now.” Incredible courage – he could have just kept sinking, or something could have grabbed his foot or…

    There must be other inhabited planets – I’d be quite happy if we didn’t discover them till I’ve departed altogether though.

  • Jay Fox

    Troublesome is the fact that no one saw this coming, as they did with Shoemaker-Levy. So the question is, is this a random event, or were there “companion objects” that missed the planet. Or will miss it. And if so, what might their trajectory be? How big an object leaves a scar on Jupiter as big as earth? Smaller than that, for sure, but how much smaller? Could we see that coming from here?

    Just askin’.

  • jwep

    We have nothing to fear until Bruce Willis dies. Until then, we can always send a team of drillers and astronauts up to detonate a *nucular* weapon inside any would be dinosaur killers.

  • chris

    I suppose if it is surprising that we didn’t see this coming then perhaps it is surprising we saw shoemaker-levy 9 at all?

    As I recall some of the marks left by shoemaker-levy 9 were Earth sized.

  • http://Discover Maurice Lauber

    I am constantly amazed at how far the intelligent animal on this insignificant planet has come. In my 78 years I have seen so much discovery that it is mind boggling. I am thankful for magazines like Discover for making me aware of all these new discoveries in a language I can undertstand.

  • Christian Guitar Lessons

    You should visit the NASA center in Houston. You’ll be amazed at how far we’ve come in only a short time as far as space exploration. Also just saw a special last night on black holes—-now that’s some scary stuff.


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