Followup: Jupiter impact video, and a color picture!

By Phil Plait | June 4, 2010 9:31 am

Anthony Wesley, who discovered the impact event on Jupiter yesterday, has posted a lovely color image of the flash:


Wow. He was only taking greyscale video, but put together a three-color composite and added in the data from the flash. So this image is not precisely real, but on the other hand is no less real than other astronomical images. He has also posted a greyscale video of the flash which is pretty tremendous, too. It’s also up on YouTube:

Note the ring of light just around the flash itself, just barely visible around the central point. That’s probably not a physical halo; it’s an artifact of how telescopes and detectors see bright point sources — the way the light spreads out in an optical system is called the point spread function. Many Hubble images of stars, for example, show the same ring.

By coincidence, the impact point appears to be near the edge of where the South Equatorial Belt on Jupiter is. That’s the belt that disappeared recently. That’s guaranteed to be a coincidence; the belt vanished many weeks ago. And I expect some folks will ask if the impact may affect the belt. My gut says no. You have to appreciate the scale of what you’re seeing here: Jupiter is 140,000 km (86,000 miles) across — 11 times the diameter of the Earth! In this picture, the Earth wouldn’t even stretch across the North Equatorial Belt, the dark red band above Jupiter’s equator.

So even though this explosion may have been the equivalent of thousands of nuclear weapons all blowing up at once, it probably will only have a passing and unnoticeable effect on Jupiter’s weather. But note: I’m guessing. Jupiter is a complex and weird planet.

Also, a lot of people are asking how this can be an impact if Jupiter isn’t solid. After all, what’s getting hit?

Again, remember the scale. What you’re seeing on Jupiter is the tops of its clouds, which are tens of thousands of kilometers deep. When a large rock enters at high speed — and with Jupiter’s gravity, those speeds can reach 80 km/sec (50 miles/sec) or more — it slams into the air and feels a huge amount of pressure. Moving at hypersonic speeds, it compresses the gas violently, and the gas heats up. The rocks slows, converting its enormous energy of motion into heat. It also starts to break up due to stress, creating many smaller chunks. These each slam the gas and heat it, and also get stressed. They fall apart, creating smaller chunks… and at some moment, usually just seconds after everything starts, the pieces are so small they burn up completely due to the heat, dumping all their energy all at once into the atmosphere. This happens so suddenly, and the energy release so vast, it’s by any definition an explosion.

The bigger the rock, and the faster it moves, the more explosive energy it releases. A rock 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) across moving at 80 km/sec will explode with the energy of almost <Dr. Evil>one million one-megaton bombs</Dr. Evil>.

So that’s why you don’t need to hit anything solid to make a big boom.

By the way, had this event happened here on Earth with the same energy release, it wouldn’t be an extinction level event like the dinosaur killer, but it would — not to get too technical or anything — suck mightily. Anything within hundreds of kilometers would be totaled and burning, global weather patterns would be affected, and even though it wouldn’t kill everybody, I expect there would be a global economic collapse that would cripple the planet. And I wonder if some governments might see this as an opportune time to attack any pesky neighbors… happily, on average an impact this large is extremely rare, like once every half million years or so.

It’s not clear how often Jupiter gets hit, and this is only the third confirmed impact we’ve seen (along with the Shoemaker Levy 9 comet impact in 1994, and last year’s asteroid impact also discovered by Wesley). But with amateurs getting more sophisticated in their technique and equipment, expect to see more of these. And they can monitor Jupiter far better and more completely than professional observatories can (which are usually pointed elsewhere; it’s a big sky), so not only will we see more of these, but they’ll be almost exclusively the domain of the amateur astronomer.

And my sincere and very hearty congratulations and thanks to Wesley and Christopher Go for their amazing images and footage of this incredible event!

Image and video credit: Anthony Wesley


Comments (45)

  1. Messier Tidy Upper

    Wow. That is one awesome video and celestial event captured.

    So even though this explosion may have been the equivalent of thousands of nuclear weapons all blowing up at once, it probably will only have a passing and unnoticeable effect on Jupiter’s weather.

    If I recall right, Sir Patrick Moore described the Shoemaker-Levy 9 impact(s) in July 1994 as comparable with “flicking a baked bean at a rhino.” 😉

    SL-9 caused some astonishing pyrotechnetics and created a whole series of black patches that spread and blurred together for a while making a dark belt of their own – if I recall right again. (Yes I could be mistaken.)

    In contrast I think this impact is much less energetic and spectacular – literally gone and over within a flash – Jupiter has been left with no “scar” & is just that very tiniest fraction larger with one less small meteoroid for us all to worry about.

    Far better Jupiter than Earth though! 😉

  2. So this image is not precisely real, but on the other hand is no less real than other astronomical images.


    Can an image ever be ‘precisely real’?

  3. Messier Tidy Upper

    See : for more on the earliest and largest Jovian impact.

    It doesn’t really confirm or reject my “dark patches turned into a brief dark belt” memory – just notes they were around for months and very prominent.

  4. Pi-needles

    @2. vagueofgodalming Says:

    Can an image ever be ‘precisely real’?

    It can be *very* durn real if it lands on *you*! 😉

  5. JerWah

    Regarding the coincidence.. Isn’t it true that a broken up meteor that several chunks might all hit within the same general latitudes? If so then what if an extremely large impact occurred a few weeks ago, on the back side of Jupiter, and this, now, was some trailing debris from that event? That might explain the large disruption to the bands, and the delay till this impact.

    Just my $.02

  6. Gas molecule velocity determines observed temperature,

    Assume Jupiter’s atmosphere is pure hydrogen , 2.016 amu. A modest 40 miles/sec (64,374 m/sec) entry then sees a toasty warm atmosphere against the direction of travel, 500,000 C, even without the bow shock. If it were ammonia, 4.2 million C. Ouch.

  7. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 6. Uncle Al

    Assume Jupiter’s atmosphere is pure hydrogen , 2.016 amu.

    Which, of course, it isn’t – there’s also helium and a number of impurities mixed into the Jovian atmosphere too. I assume you know that & are simplifying there for the sake of calculations right Uncle? 😉

    PS. Space X count has re-started and is off ‘Hold’ – now 14 minutes til Falcon 9 launch. :-)

    Now T-minus 3 minutes & 30 secs ..Looking good! :-)

  8. let’s hear it for jupiter taking a punch for us! if it weren’t for this wonderful gas giant, the inner solar system would be a much more dangerous place.


  9. Still sweeping up.

    For no reason at all, I was thinking about about Carol Burnett’s maid character holding a mop and a bucket. That’s our Jupiter.

    No picture of a plume-shadow yet.Too early? Or maybe I’m missing something?

    Could this be an artifact of the camera?

    I’m surprised none of the electric universe folks haven’t claimed this to be a giant lightning stroke from the missing band…

  10. Messier Tidy Upper

    Off Topic Update just in case folks haven’t already heard /seen :

    The Falcon 9 launch was aborted with – literally -two secs to go. Back to square one. They may try again later today. :-(

  11. Pi-needles

    @9. Jeff Wright:

    the missing band…

    The band on the run, band on the run .. 😉

  12. VA Classical Liberal

    Is Jupiter really “weird and complex”?

    Not to pick on you, BA, but you say things like that a lot. Venus is weird and complex. Mars is weird and complex. The Earth, the sun and black holes are weird and complex.

    Maybe it’s just that the universe is complex and weird is the new normal.

  13. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    it’s a big sky

    It’s a big planet. (Hooray for quasi-professional amateurs!)

  14. I always find fact to be stranger than fiction. Watching things smack Jupiter almost seems like science fiction but it’s REAL. That’s good stuff!

  15. Josh

    Again, we need to replace “amateur astronomer” with underfunded ill equipped volunteers or solar system crime fighters. Something a little more “Max Powers” if you will. Something kids will want to be.

  16. Grand Lunar

    If this keeps up, maybe amatuer astronomers can compete with getting shots of Jovian impacts.

    And next thing you know, we’ll spot the monolith in orbit between Jupiter and Io. :)

  17. Chip

    @ Grand Lunar #16 – Anyone who spotted a monolith would be so overwhelmed, the experience might turn them into a big baby. (Cue: Richard Strauss)

    But seriously, this impact is impressive! Imagine what it must have looked like if seen from orbit around Jupiter.

  18. Buzz Parsec

    BA, have to disagree with you about whether the impact will affect the missing belt. Of course it will, but (assuming Jovian weather is just as chaotic as Earth weather), the effects are unpredictable. Imaging 1,000,000 butterflies each armed with a 1 megaton nuclear bomb…

  19. Pi-needles

    @ ^ Buzz Parsec: I’ve heard of micro-nukes but that’s getting ridiculous! 😉

  20. Paul Shaffer

    You saw a white spot on Jupiter. Other than that, you don’t know nothing.

  21. Benny

    Great, now all the dinosaurs on Jupiter are going to die. LOL!

  22. DLC

    cool video.
    obviously it’s another Alien attack!

  23. Mircea

    Thank you Jupiter! :)

  24. Thameron

    Have these recent observations of Jupiter impactors caused any reassessment of how much space debris is floating around in our solar system?

  25. fred edison

    I keep thinking what a frightening, awesome, and mesmerizing sight the impact would be while watching from a moon of Jupiter. But then I’d be dead. So watching it like this works for me. w00t!

  26. You saw a white spot on Jupiter. Other than that, you don’t know nothing.

    We certainly know English grammar.

  27. jeffw

    What gives??? The still shows the impacts at about the 3:30 position if you look at Jupiter as a clock face and in the video it hits it a 11:30 position. Smells of hoax to me.

  28. luis

    i think this is very exciting. i would not like to happen this to Earth and even though Jupiter is totally a big mass of different gases we’ve seen there is no need to have a solid to release such a big amount of energy. on the other hand, i think it is a beautiful view of a spectacular event.

  29. nate

    @29. jeffw, when a celestial object is observed through most telescopes, the image is inverted (i.e., it appears upside-down). So, the video is shown as it was recorded through the telescope. The photograph is shown “north side up”, the way one would see Jupiter if one could see it this clearly without a telescope. Sorry, no hoax.

  30. Brian Weaver

    Thank you for sharing and posting this. And…….. ( For conspiracy dude) And I ‘believe’ if I am READING it correctly, it is showing you our perpspective of Jupiter on the color enhanced. Like Rio is not really directly in line south of Miami, our view. I think.

  31. little T

    Wow, that is just amazing. although i think its also kind of boring as well. Tell me when you get a vidoe of something hitting mars or venus. That would really be a spectacular sight.

  32. KorciKan

    Dr.Smallberries with Uncle al found the neutrino to this event.
    Albert would be proud. A Tasco telescope should be in every childs dream.
    Of course you can!

  33. Congratulations to Anthony, this is a fair reward for his skills and perseverance in planetary imaging! Recalls me the SL9 impact in 1994, that I observed and photographed with CCD camera from the Pic-du-Midi observatory (unfortunately, planetary video cameras did not yet exist).

    Personally, I have no problem with the fact that the B&W video that shows the impact has been colorized with a color image taken before, especially if the processing is clearly explained. The only difference with a real-time color shot is that here, we cannot know the true color of the impact itself.

  34. Mel

    This reminds me of Comet Shoemaker-Levy which broke up and impacted Jupiter in 1994. A few days later I was observing Jupiter with my 6″ Astro-Physics refractor and saw the black impact areas caused by the fragments impacting Jupiter’s atmosphere (actually, Jupiter is virtually all atmosphere, since it does not have a solid or liquid surface).

    It was a fascinating sight! Had that comet hit the earth, it would have caused immeasurable damage…

  35. reidh

    That Guy Anthony Walsh is good.

    Quote from article

    “… happily, on average an impact this large is extremely rare, like once every half million years or so.”

    What are you talking about? Counting this one there have been three impacts in the past 16 years or less, On Jupiter. There is a greater liklihood than you state of there being a large impact on Earth. exactly what that is, is Unknown because no body was here in the past 10,000 years ago to take note. I’m not trying to be an alarmist, but you are treating your lay readers like little babies by making estimates of probability about which you nor anyone else has any Certainty. Based on jupiter’s (and Saturn’s) being a big S**t magnet, sucking stuff out of the inner solar system, things bumping around in the dark in the Oort Cloud, Nobody Knows what might happen When. And How in the heck did Pluto get a Moon? What IS in the Oort Cloud, Really? Does Mars have water? Nobody Knows. Get Real.

    From Wikipedia:
    “From July 16 through July 22, 1994, pieces of an object designated as Comet P/Shoemaker-Levy 9 collided with Jupiter. ….Observers soon saw a huge dark spot after the first impact. The spot was visible even in very small telescopes, and was about 6,000 km (3,700 mi) (one Earth radius) across.”

    also wikipedia:
    “On July 19, 2009, a new black spot about the size of Earth was discovered in Jupiter’s southern hemisphere by an amateur astronomer. Thermal infrared analysis showed it was warm and spectroscopic methods detected ammonia. JPL scientists confirmed that another impact event on Jupiter had occurred, probably a small undiscovered comet or other icy body.”

  36. Mel


    Impacts the magnitude of those observed on Jupiter are quite rare on earth; it is a much smaller target, and Jupiter acts like a giant vacuum cleaner and its gravitational field is so strong that it “shepherds” comets from the Oort Cloud away from the inner regions of the Solar System.

    Life-threatening impacts only occur every 50-60 million years or so. I would hardly get in a tizzy about such an event happening in the foreseeable future. Lots of things should be of far greater concern to us human beings…

  37. Stuart Austwick

    HI, I was totally impressed with your Video and wondered if you could let me know what setup you used to capture this.
    I have a 14″ Celestron Polar Mounted in a Dome, but have only used it for still imaging.

    I would be really interested in setting it up to produce videos of Astronomical events such as this.


  38. Jim

    “You saw a white spot on Jupiter. Other than that, you don’t know nothing.”

    Despite what other’s may say about the grammar, you may have a point. The image does not look like other recorded “hits”. Atmospheric distortion may explain some details, and would hate to go into lightning discharges although lightning does happen on Earth around large energy discharges such as volcanoes. Think this does need further review and a continued followup!

  39. WOW. The video was awesome as well as the pic too. At last, scientists could take a pic of jupiter. Someday we the human are gonna rule the outer space too.


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