Hubble pix at Jupiter's scar

By Phil Plait | July 31, 2009 7:30 am

I’ve been asked by many people if I’ve heard anything about the status of Hubble since the servicing mission. I haven’t heard a peep, so it was a pretty good shock to see the Hubble folks releasing not just an image, but one from the newly installed Wide Field Camera 3… and it’s of the ginormous scar left on Jupiter’s face from the recent impact!

Hubble spies Jupiter’s booboo

Holy soot!

If you’re looking for the back story, you can read my description here. This new image is really something. The colors are not precisely natural, but close: three filters that pass red, green, and blue light were used to approximate a true-color picture. In reality, the filters used let through a very narrow range in each color, while our eyes detect a much wider range; that’s why I said "approximate". I’m guessing that narrow-band filters were used because Jupiter is hideously bright, so those filters would allow for decent exposure times without frying the camera.

The black spot is huge, nearly 10,000 kilometers across, making it roughly the size of the Earth. It’s composed of dust, basically vaporized whatever-it-was-that-smacked-into-Jupiter. Probably an asteroid; a comet would’ve been spotted before the impact (because they are brighter), and no one saw it. The impactor itself was probably several hundred meters across, and the explosive energy release (in non-sciencey speak, the gigantic kaboom) would’ve been measured in the tens of thousands of megatons. Given that the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated on Earth was about 50 megatons, you may start to grasp the horrifying power of this event. Had it happened here, well. It wouldn’t be a global extinction event, not quite, but it would’ve sucked mightily.

This image is important for a lot of reasons. For one, it gives us a nice high-resolution view of this scar, which changes every day — remember, it’s just dust floating on clouds, so we need lots of observations to see how it changes. From my calculations, the Wide Field Camera 3, which took this image, has a resolution of about 250 km (150 miles) at Jupiter’s distance, so it can see very minute detail.

Another reason this is important is it shows us that holy mackeral, Hubble still works! The WFC3 was just installed a few weeks ago, and NASA interrupted the calibration and checkout of the grand observatory to take these shots. Not only that, calibration isn’t finished yet, so these pictures aren’t even really at their best. You can expect even better things from Hubble and WFC3 in the coming weeks and months.

This could not have been an easy observation to get approved, take, process, and release, so my congrats to my friend Heidi Hammel and to the team of folks who made this possible. Well done! And very, very cool.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, and H. Hammel (Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo.), and the Jupiter Impact Team.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (47)

  1. Cindy

    Hey, no credit when I pointed this out to you several days ago while you were busy hobnobbing with celebrities?? Harrumph.

  2. @Cindy, I’m sure if Phil had to credit everyone who has ever pointed him to an article or a source or requested coverage of some event … these pages would be filled with names.

  3. Lars

    Excuse me if this question is dumb, but why would you want longer (“decent”) exposure times?

  4. John

    I can also (somewhat belatedly) confirm that WFC3 is ready for prime time enough that they have set scheduling windows for observations through 2010 (at least for my cycle 17 program). STIS seems to be the problem child at the moment, at least on the MAMA detector side.

  5. Dean

    I’d read that it’s likely that the impact took place on the other side of Jupiter. Isn’t it possible then that this was actually a comet that was coming in from the outer solar system and just hadn’t been discovered yet? If it was only a few hundred metres across, that isn’t that big of a comet.

  6. TaoMacGuy

    And *this* to me is why we humans are here. There is, IMHO, no higher calling, and it would seem to me the *purpose* of our lives (if that is the way to word it), than exploring, reaching into the unknown and the arts!

    In fact, the only way to make that image better would be to set it to music or poetry or both!

    Rock on Team Hubble!

  7. Very awesome! It looks like more than Jupiter is giving us something to think about:

  8. Annalee Flower Horne

    Go Team Hubble!

    And I’d like to take a moment to thank our dear friend Jupiter. If not for Jupiter, that hoodlum of a planet-smacker would still be loitering around the solar system, threatening DEATH FROM THE SKIES! So thanks for taking one for the team there, Jupiter. You’re the best big brother ever (even if you are kind of gassy).

  9. BJN

    The blessed fish is mackerel. You must be thinking about Cape Canaveral.

  10. This is also today’s APOD. :-)

  11. Hokey Smokes, Bullwinkle!
    I’m glad the Hubble folks put this on the fast track!

  12. Caleb

    Poor Jupiter. It gets a blemish and the whole world has to make a big deal of it. 😉

  13. dhtroy

    Man, I hope that spot comes out in the wash.


  14. ChrisS

    “From my calculations, the Wide Field Camera 3, which took this image, has a resolution of about 250 km (400 miles) at Jupiter’s distance, so it can see very minute detail.”

    are you saying that my (current) state of residence, Florida, would be just slightly taller than single pixel? When we colonize Jupiter, the kids can forget road trips to other (devisor here)-spheres of that freaking planet! Jeepers!

  15. Cindy, you were the first to point this out, but I also saw it myself. Generally in cases like this I just don’t tip anyone. BUt here you go, since you’re an old friend. :)

  16. Michael Parmeley

    Is it possible that maybe the thing that hit Jupiter was seen in some photos but it wasn’t noticed. Is it possible for astronomers to scour previous photos and see if it was actually seen? I think I have heard of things being discovered in older photos of the skies.

  17. Mike

    If we didn’t see it get hit, how do we know it isn’t from something coming OUT of Jupiter? I’m not sayin’ – I’m just sayin’.

  18. Jane and I had fun seeing the impact scar visually last weekend. It’s quite noticeable in most small telescopes, transiting the meridian of Jupiter about two hours before the Gread Red Spot (or as I call it, the spot formerly known as Red). We could also see that brilliant white oval just north of the impact scar.

  19. mike burkhart

    At lest it is not the monolith form 2010 (just kiding)

  20. T.E.L.


    That’s a good question. The reason it’s presumed to be an impact is, naturally, because impacts are known to happen, and the anomaly’s appearance is approximately like that from the SL-9 impact.

    But could it be an ejection instead? Maybe. Perhaps it was a “burp”: a convection-related event that no one’s ever seen before. Just a guess.

  21. Utakata

    Just a curious question…perhaps a bit silly: Due Jupiter being considerabley larger than Earth, thus more pronounced gravity with a thick undefined gasious surface, wouldn’t any large astroid/comet have a much more dramatic impact there than if the same sized object hit here on Earth? Meaning creating a bigger boom there as opposed to any boom affecting our civilization here. (I also suppose it has something to do with how prone to combustion Jupiter’s atmosphere in comparison to Earth’s.)

    I hope this question makes sense. Sentence structure is not a strong point with me when attempting to ask something scientific. /sigh

  22. T.E.L.


    Good question. That depends on what you mean by “dramatic”. Given the intruder’s kinetic energy at impact, Jupiter’s gravity may be largely irrelevant. That energy will go into its interaction with the larger body’s environment. In this case, the object of course plowed into Jupiter’s very deep atmosphere. Since that atmosphere is tremendously deeper than Earth’s, the object was subjected to intense aerodynamic forces for a much lengthier time than for Earth. All that energy eroded the object, wittling away to nothing but hot ashes, while blasting a huge hole in Jupiter’s clouds (as we see in this case).

    But with the same kinetic energy, the impactor could plow right into Earth, and if so it would also be eroded by the cratering process (that is to say, something this energetic would be pulverized, sheared away layer by layer very rapidly; a much smaller, less energetic object can make it all the way to the ground mostly intact). A body such as what probably made the scar on Jupiter would do just as much overall damage to Earth, and would of course cause vastly more damage to us and to civilization! :)

  23. Nankay

    Looks like a belly button……… just sayin’………….

  24. Utakata

    Thanks T.E.L. for explaining that…I appreciate that. Though I’m not sure that comforts me….other than perhaps the “surface” area of Jupiter is larger than of Earth’s; therfore, more prone to large scale asteroid/comet collisions than Earths. Or even act as a “magnet” for large scale asteroids/comets, encouraging such debries not to impact here. Though my full understanding of that science is fairly weaksauce. :)

  25. T.E.L.


    In that sense, you’re right: Jupiter does present a greater draw for wandering objects than Earth does because of its larger size and gravity, as you seem to understand.

  26. But wait a minute! I posted this pic on a blog last week! Holy Toledo! 😛

  27. Michael Kingsford Gray

    Imagine how many Hubbles could be orbiting, if billions had not been poured down the money-gurgler that is the ISS.

  28. coolstar

    An impact on earth with the energy given by Phil of “10 of thousands of megatons of TNT” (this is still very uncertain, by the way, since the object wasn’t observed prior to impact) might not be a mass extinction event but, for a cometary density object, it would have a diameter of about 1 km and almost certainly would be a CIVILIZATION ending event, which is bad enough for my tastes.

  29. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    I just hope it doesn’t deflate and go flying all over the solar system.

  30. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    It still looks like a black hole to me.

  31. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Are they testing CERN yet? It might be a spin off.

  32. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    I have an autographed picture of the first Hubble repair crew . I did a painting of the SRB separation on a Hubble Deep Field after their launch. I sent them a pic of it and they sent me a pic. Then I realized that Mr. Spock was standing in the background.

  33. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Just kidding! But I do have the Discovery Crew Pic.

  34. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    I asked for a moon shot, but they wouldn’t comply.

  35. I hear early September will be the big “Hubble is even more awesome than ever” press release. I can state with assurance that the Advanced Camera for Surveys is not only repaired, but better than it was before. (In some ways; the detector was not replaced, so it’s been getting hit by high-energy protons for another two years in the meantime. But the video noise is slightly improved.) With WFC3 up and running, it’s not as big a deal, but even still there are some observations better done with ACS.

  36. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    The comet threat seems to have been downgraded:

    In the new research, Kaib and co-author Thomas Quinn, a UW astronomy professor and Kaib’s doctoral adviser, used computer models to simulate the evolution of comet clouds in the solar system for 1.2 billion years. They found that even outside the periods of comet showers, the inner Oort Cloud was a major source of long-period comets that eventually cross Earth’s path.

    By assuming the inner Oort Cloud as the only source of long-period comets, they were able to estimate the highest possible number of comets in the inner Oort Cloud. The actual number is not known. But by using the maximum number possible, they determined that no more than two or three comets could have struck Earth during what is believed to be the most powerful comet shower of the last 500 million years.
    He noted that the work assumes the area surrounding the solar system has remained relatively unchanged for the last 500 million years, but it is unclear whether that is really the case. It is clear, though, that Earth has benefitted from having Jupiter and Saturn standing guard like giant catchers mitts, deflecting or absorbing comets that might otherwise strike Earth.

    “We show that Jupiter and Saturn are not perfect and some of the comets from the inner Oort Cloud are able to leak through. But most don’t,” Kaib said. [ScienceDaily]

    @ TEL:

    the anomaly’s appearance is approximately like that from the SL-9 impact.

    And that is moreover on several wavelength bands, AFAIU. So the “burp” idea is IMHO iffy.

  37. 34. Charles J. Slavis, Jr. Says:
    August 1st, 2009

    Are they testing CERN yet? It might be a spin off.

    Mention of CERN and the LHC reminded me that National Geographic channel will have an episode of their “World’s Toughest Fixes” this Sunday (2nd) with a fix of a magnet on the LHC:

    description of episode from web page (http[colon, double slash]channel[dot]nationalgeographic[dot]com/series/worlds-toughest-fixes/4221/Overview)
    Sean faces one of his most spectacular fixes to date as he repairs a giant magnet at the Large Hadron Collider with success paving the way for scientific breakthrough, while failure means a potential catastrophe.


  38. Tried to see the impact remnant tonight with a celestron 8″. Couldn’t make it out. Has it faded already?

    Neato eclipse of Enceladus, tho.

  39. Smapdi

    Be sure to check out Jonah Goldberg’s insightful column, with research he did all by himself!,0,3694237.column

  40. T.E.L.

    Torbjörn Larsson, OM Said:

    “So the “burp” idea is IMHO iffy.”

    I agree.

  41. Buzz Parsec

    I believe the answer to MK Gray’s implied question (#29) is “one”.

  42. Pretty arrogant to assume that it must be an asteroid because we would have noticed something as bright as a comet. Human experience is filled with cases of us not noticing things until it is too late.


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