When amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley from Australia saw a dark spot the size of the Pacific Ocean appear on Jupiter through his telescope on July 19, 2009, this started a flurry of astronomic activity, with other telescopes quickly slewing to take a look. It didn’t take long for other astronomers to confirm Jupiter had been hit by an object, either an asteroid or a comet. Of course, the world’s most famous telescope, Hubble, zeroed in on this unexpected activity on Jupiter, and luckily, the telescope had been recently updated with a new Wide Field Camera 3 and newly repaired Advanced Camera for Surveys. Astronomers have now released a series of images from Hubble which may show for the first time the immediate aftermath of an asteroid striking another planet.
Astronomers have witnessed this kind of cosmic event before, but from a comet. Similar scars had been left behind during the course of a week in July 1994, when more than 20 pieces of Comet P/Shoemaker-Levy 9 (SL9) plunged into Jupiter’s atmosphere. The 2009 impact occurred during the same week, 15 years later.
But comparing Hubble images of both collisions, astronomers say the culprit was likely an asteroid about 1,600 feet (500 meters) wide.
“This solitary event caught us by surprise, and we can only see the aftermath of the impact, but fortunately we do have the 1994 Hubble observations that captured the full range of impact phenomena, including the nature of the objects from pre-impact observations” says astronomer Heidi Hammel of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., leader of the Jupiter impact study.
The analysis revealed key differences between the two collisions (in 1994 and 2009), providing clues to the 2009 event. Astronomers saw a distinct halo around the 1994 impact sites in Hubble ultraviolet (UV) images, evidence of fine dust arising from a comet-fragment strike. The UV images also showed a strong contrast between impact-generated debris and Jupiter’s clouds.
Hubble ultraviolet images of the 2009 impact showed no halo and also revealed that the site’s contrast faded rapidly. Both clues suggest a lack of lightweight particles, providing circumstantial evidence for an impact by a solid asteroid rather than a dusty comet.
The elongated shape of the recent asteroid impact site also differs from the 1994 strike, indicating that the 2009 object descended from a shallower angle than the SL9 fragments. The 2009 body also came from a different direction than the SL9 pieces.
Team member Agustin Sanchez-Lavega of the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao, Spain, and colleagues performed an analysis of possible orbits that the 2009 impacting body could have taken to collide with Jupiter. Their work indicates the object probably came from the Hilda family of bodies, a secondary asteroid belt consisting of more than 1,100 asteroids orbiting near Jupiter.
The 2009 strike was equal to a few thousand standard nuclear bombs exploding, comparable to the blasts from the medium-sized fragments of SL9. The largest of those fragments created explosions that were many times more powerful than the world’s entire nuclear arsenal blowing up at once.
The recent impact underscores the important work performed by amateur astronomers. “This event beautifully illustrates how amateur and professional astronomers can work together,” said Hammel.
The Jupiter bombardments reveal that the solar system is a rambunctious place, where unpredictable events may occur more frequently than first thought. Jupiter impacts were expected to occur every few hundred to few thousand years. Although there are surveys to catalogue asteroids, many small bodies may still go unnoticed and show up anytime to wreak havoc.
The study by Hammel’s team appeared in the June 1 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.