Flash! New missile collides with Jupiter

Another object has been caught live smashing into Jupiter, just as astronomers were reporting their analysis of an impact last July. The ink was barely dry on these webpages when news came in that a bright flash had been observed yesterday by two separate observers.

Image of crash by Anthony Wesley
Image of crash by Anthony Wesley

In a triumph for amateur astronomy, Anthony Wesley of Australia and Christopher Go of the Philippines independently photographed the flare in Jupiter’s cloudtops.

The fact they both witnessed it at the same moment thousands of miles apart tells us immediately that this was a genuine event at Jupiter – probably either an asteroid or a comet – rather than a flash in our own atmosphere.

It was Wesley, of Broken Hill, who first spotted a scar left last year in Jupiter’s clouds. As we reported yesterday, follow-up observations made with the Hubble space telescope suggest that was an asteroid.

Hubble is certain to be switched from other duties again to snap Jupiter and give professional astronomers as much information as possible about the new collision.

The latest impact was caught at 20.31 UT on June 3 – the early morning local time in Australia and the Far East. Nothing further was seen before daylight intervened.

Wesley told Spaceweather.com: “There were no visible remains at the impact point for the next half hour or so, until sunrise put an end to the imaging.”

However, if events follow that seen a year ago and 15 years before when fragments of a comet hit Jupiter, a dark “bruise” can be expected to develop around the impact site.

With these impacts now apparently less rare than once imagined, astronomers will also be re-examining observations of light and dark spots on Jupiter in historical records.

In 1686, Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini noted a dark spot on Jupiter that was about the same size as the largest bruise seen after Comet Shoemaker-Levy hit the planet in 1994.

A British Astronomer Royal, George Airy, saw another dark spot thathe recorded as being nearly four times bigger than shadows cast by Jupiter’s main Galilean moons.

• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice onhow to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available. Check out our monthly sky guide too!

©PAUL SUTHERLAND, Skymania.com

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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