Hubble sees no remains of the Jupiter impact

By Phil Plait | June 16, 2010 11:49 am

A month ago, something big burned up in Jupiter’s atmosphere. The impact was seen by two amateur astronomers, and very quickly the big guns were turned to the giant planet.

And what they saw was… nothing. Nada. Bupkis. Not even the powerful eye of Hubble saw anything. See for yourself:

hst_jupiter_noimpact

This picture of Jupiter was taken on June 7, just a few days after the impact. The image on the right is a closeup, and the circle represents where the impact took place, and there’s nothing there we can see. In previous impacts — most notably the one last year in July, and the Shoemaker-Levy 9 series of impacts in 1994 — nasty black bruises appeared on the planet’s cloud tops. Those were impact scars, plumes of material blasted up from deeper in Jupiter’s cloud, dredged up by the multi-megaton explosions. You can see this by comparing an image of Jupiter taken last year after the July impact with what they got this year:

hst_jupter_nobelt

The 2009 impact scar can be seen in the left hand image near the bottom of Jupiter. There is no such scar seen for the newer impact. That means that whatever hit Jupiter didn’t explode deep in the atmosphere. The observations imply strongly that whatever hit burned up high in the atmosphere, more like a giant fireball than an impact and explosion. Given how bright it was, I’m personally of the opinion that this may not have been a giant solid asteroid, like a piece of rock or metal. If it was that fragile, it may have been what’s called a rubble pile; a loose conglomeration of rocks held together by their own gravity.

At the moment, because we didn’t see anything it’s hard to say anything positive. We can eliminate a few possibilities, but it’s hard to know exactly what happens. These observations definitely help, but are also in their way a little maddening. What the heck happened on Jupiter?

As an added bonus, these observations also show (OK, don’t show) the missing southern equatorial belt; a planet-wide storm wrapped around Jupiter. In the older shot you can see it, but a few months ago it disappeared, and is missing in the newer shot. This has happened before, but it’s unclear why. In the new images you can see that the storms north and south of the missing belt look different now too, perhaps a clue as to what’s going on. There is a series of brownish circular storms all lined up, more or less, and other odd features as well.

All in all, I think we can sum all this up by saying Jupiter is a weird place. Mind you, it’s 140,000 kilometers across (86,000 miles), which is a heckuva lot of real estate to try to understand. I expect the questions and answers will change, but I bet that in a hundred years, astronomers studying Jupiter will still have plenty of mysteries on their hands.

Credit: NASA, ESA, M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley), H.B. Hammel (Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo.), A.A. Simon-Miller (Goddard Space Flight Center), and the Jupiter Impact Science Team

Comments (25)

Links to this Post

  1. ANOTHER Jupiter impact? | Bad Astronomy | FEEDER | August 23, 2010
  1. DrFlimmer

    From Universe Today’s coverage ( http://www.universetoday.com/2010/06/16/hubble-delves-in-to-solve-two-recent-jupiter-mysteries/ ):

    In the Hubble view, a slightly higher altitude layer of white ammonia ice crystal clouds appears to obscure the deeper, darker belt clouds. “Weather forecast for Jupiter’s Southern Equatorial Belt: cloudy with a chance of ammonia,” Hammel said.

    This is interesting, but where did the ammonia come from, and in such numbers? And is it such a good reflector that we see almost white light coming from it?

  2. hello

    poor jupiter lost its belt and now it’s getting shot at with space junk :(

  3. John Berryman

    What about all of Kepler’s discoveries? No mention?

  4. The impact only happened about 2 weeks ago (June 3). I wonder if they would have seen a small remnant of they didn’t wait 4 days to observe it.

  5. Juan

    What Phil won’t tell you is that this was part of the dark plot of Titan’s overlords.

  6. LSandman24

    It takes time to point Hubble and other telescopes. Four days actually seems like a pretty quick turnaround when it comes to moving a telescope the size of a school bus that the world’s astronomers are all competing to get time to use.

  7. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    poor jupiter lost its belt

    No wonder; it’s a fat planet!

    Four days actually seems like a pretty quick turnaround when it comes to moving a telescope the size of a school bus that the world’s astronomers are all competing to get time to use.

    And fat ‘bureaucracy’ means: fat chance!?

    I see a theme here.

  8. Jupiter to impactor: NOM NOM NOM

  9. Wow….It is so beautiful. You kind of forget that when you don’t look at such a detailed image very often.

    I wish it was as hospitable as Mars. Then we could be planning a manned trip to Jupiter.

  10. The reason we didn’t see any impact indicators is because the object was OUTBOUND! The Jupiterians are sick of us staring at them. Whatever they sent will arrive in a couple of years.

  11. Your Name Here

    Where the hell did that belt go?

  12. Captain Noble

    I think it was a Monolith.

  13. hello

    @9, a manned trip to jupiter itself may be a ways off but there’s always its moons!

  14. Craig

    @14, except Europa. Attempt no landing there.

  15. Thanny

    I don’t think a rubble pile is likely for the impacter. Tidal forces would probably spaghettify such an agglomeration, producing several impact sites, as with Shoemaker-Levy 9 (which probably had more than its own trivial gravity holding it together).

  16. Floyd

    Suggestion: maybe whatever hit Jupiter this time was insubstantial enough (like many comets) that it vaporized as it hit the Jovian atmosphere. Hence no apparent “blemish.” No monoliths to see here, move along…

  17. Jeff Fite

    @16 Thanny

    IIRC, Shoemaker-Levy 9 was broken up into a roughly linear ‘string of pearls’ by Jupiter’s tidal force on its previous orbit. If the recent (‘missing’) impactor had not had a close call before, it might still have been a single handful of FSM’s own sand, thrown in Jove’s face.

    @17 Floyd

    I wondered about a comet, too, but then thought we would have spotted it before impact. Even modest comets show up on surveys–especially by the time they get to Jupiter’s orbit, don’t they?

  18. Pi-needles

    8. Harold Says:

    Jupiter to impactor: NOM NOM NOM

    Impactor says: AIIIIEEE!

    You’ve seen the title of this old post:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/05/20/star-om-nom-nom-planet-aieee/

    haven’t you? ;-)

  19. @Craig: love it! Laughed so hard my cat is giving me a really strange look

  20. ByJove

    > Jupiter is a weird place

    Which is a good reason to have a couple of probes in orbit around it in perpetuity, no?

    Actually, a couple of probes in orbit around all of the planets in perpetuity doesn’t seem like a bad baseline activity for NASA+ESA+JAXA+RSA+etc.

  21. BILL7718

    Maybe BP cleaned up the smudge?

  22. Dunc

    As an added bonus, these observations also show (OK, don’t show) the missing southern equatorial belt; a planet-wide storm wrapped around Jupiter. In the older shot you can see it, but a few months ago it disappeared, and is missing in the newer shot. This has happened before, but it’s unclear why. In the new images you can see that the storms north and south of the missing belt look different now too, perhaps a clue as to what’s going on. There is a series of brownish circular storms all lined up, more or less, and other odd features as well.

    Obviously, the local Dwellers have just had a Formal War to resolve a dispute over the most aesthetically pleasing number of belts, and Odds won. Those “storms” are either the effects of various weapons systems, or a result of the subsequent celebrations. I’m sure they all had a splendid time.

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