Astronomers agree that, at some point in the Universe’s history, Jupiter might have obliterated a large part of the original set of planets in our solar system.
A couple of weeks back, the gas giant got a taste of its own medicine: a small comet or asteroid collided with the planet on March 17. How do we know that?
Austrian amateur astronomer Gerrit Kernbauer captured the impact on film, and a time-lapse of the collision was posted on YouTube; Kernbauer observed the event with a 20 cm telescope.
Surprisingly, there was another amateur stargazer who also caught the asteroid’s impact with Jupiter on camera. His name is John McKeon, and he was using a 28 cm telescope near Dublin.
It’s not as surprising for the giant planet to be bombarded by space rocks; as a matter of fact, Jupiter is hit by various space objects on the regular.
For example, in 1994, the planet was repeatedly hit by a series of comet fragments as the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 smashed into it. Solar debris tends to be attracted by Jupiter’s immense gravitational pull, so these events occur pretty regularly.
Citizen scientists like Mckeon and Kernbauer who are interested in keeping an eye on the sky can leave their mark on space science with observations like these.
According to Emily Lakdawalla, senior editor at the Planetary Society, amateur astronomers who use less-than-professional telescopes can still “make fundamental contributions to astronomy research.” This recent observation is a perfect example of why.
The object caught on film as it collides with Jupiter’s surface remains unidentified, but scientists believe it was either a comet (rock-y ice) or a meteor (metal-y rock). Physics says the space object may have hit Jupiter with incredible force, because of the massive gravitational pull of the planet.
Based on the brief, bright light – and on data collected during previous collisions with the gas giant – astronomers think the object couldn’t have been bigger than some tens-of-meters in diameter.
You might think an object that small (remember, this is still in rapport with the giant Universe) wouldn’t cause such an enormous bang, but astronomers have taken into account Jupiter’s ferocious gravity.
Moreover, “the energy released by an object slamming into another depends linearly on the mass (double the mass, double the energy), but on the square of the velocity: double the velocity, quadruple the energy,” according to Phil Plait, a journalist at Slate.
Image Source: Astronomy Now