Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Sometime early Monday morning while most of the country was in bed dreaming of sweet nothings, at least two amateur astronomers were out blazing the night skies looking for action. And what they found was the event of a lifetime: A two-second white flash on the surface of Jupiter.
Amateur astronomer Dan Peterson, from Racine, Wisconsin, first reported his sighting of the explosion on Jupiter on the cloudynights.com forum. A second astronomer, George Hall of Dallas, Texas, caught the explosion on video with his webcam-telescope link.
Both Peterson and Hall had assumed what they witnessed was a large meteor or comet impact. Some expert astronomers, after viewing the short video, seem to agree.
Amy Simon Miller, Associate Director for Strategic Science, Solar System Exploration Division at NASA℠s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland, cautioned that experts “can only confirm based on the fact that there were two independent reports.” It will be some time before an official explanation is made.
The impact, if confirmed, would be the fourth such event witnessed on the gas giant in just three years. What is perhaps most significant about the observation, is the fact that the explosion was visible with amateur equipment, on earth, more than 450 million miles away–which indicates that explosion was of a sizeable nature.
Miller said despite not knowing the size or nature of the beast, the flash produced was similar to one that occurred in 2010, which was on the order of 33 feet in size. “By contrast, the impactor in 2009 was likely 200 to 500 meters [660 to 1,600 feet,” she told National Geographic News´ Andrew Fazekas.
Peterson, who observed the impact while peering through his 12-inch telescope, said he believed the object was a “small undetected comet that is now history,” writing on a message board titled “I observed an explosion on Jupiter this morning!”
Hall, who said he caught the event by accident, shared the short video on his Flickr page.
Miller said the next step is for experts to find signs of dark markings on Jupiter´s cloud tops. “An impact superheats the immediate atmosphere and will essentially produce soot.”
If these dark spots can be confirmed, only then will heavy-duty telescopes be enlisted to confirm the explosion without a doubt. “Professional telescopes and Hubble are typically very oversubscribed and won’t be called into action unless a debris field is confirmed first by amateurs,” she added.
Astronomers long held that Jovian collisions were quite rare, until the recent barrage of sightings (four in the past three years). Even the 1994 collision of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into Jupiter was held as a spectacularly rare event. But now astronomers are beginning to readjust their thinking.
Jupiter most likely has frequent events, noted Miller, although the bulk of them are relatively small and are not visible by most amateur ground-based telescopes. She added that it is also likely that numerous collisions are occurring on the side of the planet that we can´t see. “In fact, they probably happen up to once a week, but some would be too small to even make a flash,” she told NGN.
With the continuing eye on the sky from amateurs like Peterson and Hall, scientists should get a better grip on the number of meteors within Jupiter´s reach, Miller said.
The 2009 and 2010 impacts “showed that there were very many smaller objects out near Jupiter with the potential to impact“¦At that point we expected that many more sightings would occur,” she added, “so this new one confirms our hypothesis,” she concluded.