Just in time for Global Astronomy Month, two separate amateur astronomers in Europe have captured video evidence of a comet or asteroid smashing and causing an explosion on Jupiter.
On March 17th at 00:18:33 UTC (for you non-nerds out there, 12:18 am GMT or 8:18 pm Atlantic time the previous day), both Gerrit Kernbaur in Mödling, Austria, and John McKeon in Swords, Ireland, recorded the impact that appears to have occurred right at Jupiter’s limb (the edge of the planet from our current view).
The unique double register of the event almost certainly confirms it to have been an explosion caused by an asteroid or comet, likely over ten metres in diameter. “In the history of humankind, only one (similar) event has been dramatically imaged,” says Ohio native and amateur astrophotographer, Ron Whitehead, referring to the July 1994 recording by the Galileo spacecraft of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 breaking apart and colliding with Jupiter.
“Shoemaker-Levy 9 showed graphically what happens when a comet hits Jupiter.”
According to reports, Kernbaur was using a Sky-Watcher 8-inch f/5 Newtonian telescope while McKeon was operating his Celestron 11-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain. How probable is it for two stargazers to capture the same split-second event on video? Says Whitehead, somewhat predictably, “The probability is astronomical.”
More news about the planet Jupiter will hopefully be coming fast and furious this summer as the NASA spacecraft Juno, launched in August of 2011, will finally arrive at its destination. With plans to orbit Jupiter 37 times over a 20 month period, the aim of the mission is to learn more about the planet, its gravitational and magnetic fields and to look for evidence of a solid planetary core, helping us to further understand how the solar system and our own planet Earth were formed.
In the meantime, though, a study in the Journal of Geophysical Research -Space Physics has provided new insights on Jupiter’s X-ray aurora, its version of our Northern Lights. Hundreds of times brighter than the Earth’s aurora borealis, the X-ray aurora occurs when solar winds- streams of particles sent from the Sun – create a storm front that interacts with and shifts Jupiter’s magnetosphere, triggering the release of high energy X-rays and creating the brilliant aurora which span an area larger than the surface of the Earth.
“There’s a constant power struggle between the solar wind and Jupiter’s magnetosphere,” says William Dunn, PhD candidate at University College London Mullard Space Science Laboratory and lead author of the new study, “By studying how the aurora changes, we can discover more about the region of space controlled by Jupiter’s magnetic field, and if or how this is influenced by the Sun.”
The aurora borealis are similarly produced through interaction between solar winds and the Earth’s magnetosphere. With the north magnetic pole located in Canada’s arctic, Canadians are given privileged access to this natural light display.
Jupiter was at its brightest this past month, officially in opposition (directly opposite the Sun in our sky) on March 8th, and at that point the second brightest planet in the sky after Venus.
As mentioned, April is Global Astronomy Month, an annual event touted as the world’s largest global celebration of astronomy and organized by Astronomers Without Borders, an international collective bringing the world together under the quaintly Star Trekkian motto, “One People, One Sky.”
Below: Asteroid impact on Jupiter?