A Fresh Impact on Jupiter

 

A still from the clip of an impact on Jupiter recorded on 10 Sept. 2012. The video was captured with a 12″ LX200GPS, 3x Televue Barlow, and Point Grey Flea 3 camera. Credit: George Hall

An amateur astronomer reported the visual detection of a fireball on Jupiter at 11:35 UT on September 10 2012. It was confirmed on a video recorded from Texas. This is the 6th impact of Jupiter detected so far.

Astronomer Dan Petersen saw a bright flash on Jupiter which lasted 1 or 2 seconds. It estimated its position to be in the system I Longitude = 335 and Latitude = +12 deg. The report was sent to Richard Schmude of the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (ALPO) and forwarded to us by John H. Rogers, Jupiter Section Director at the British Astronomical Association.

A video of the flash was revealed a few hours later by George Hall, an amateur astronomer located in Dallas Texas. He used a webcam mounted on a MEADE 12″ LX200GPS. In the video it looks quite similar to the flash observed on August 20, 2010.

This is the 6th impact observed on Jupiter. The most famous one was the predicted, and intensively observed, impact of the comet Shoemaeker-Levy 9 (S-L 9) which broke apart and collide on Jupiter in July 1994. An fireball was photographed by Voyager 1 during its encounter on March 1979 with Jupiter. More recently, thanks to the intensive monitoring of amateur astronomer and the improvement in image quality providing by cheap webcam plugged on small telescopes, several small impacts were detected and followed up by amateur and professional astronomers together:

  • I reported in this blog the July 19 2009 impact which was followed up by our team using adaptive optics systems on various large telescopes including Keck-10m, TNG-3.6m, and the VLT-8m. That was a fun moment in my career which leads to a large international collaboration and this scientific article.
  • Anthony Wesley, an Australian amateur astronomer saw a flash at 4:31 p.m. (EDT) on June 3 2010. Images collected a few days after using the Hubble Space Telescope did not reveal the presence of scar or debris.
  • In August 20 2010, a third flash was reported by Masayuki Tachikawa, amateur astronomer from Kumamoto city, Japan. I did not find anywhere a follow-up of this meteor impact.

Because the impactors were small (a few meters) the 2010 impacts were not big explosions driving a giant plume, as we have seen for S-L 9 and the 2009 impact. The absence of scar, or “black spots” on Jupiter, observed for the 2010 events implies that there was no debris field, so they were most likely just meteors. To characterize the type of impact that was observed a few hours ago, the area of the impact will be monitored using large facilities. If a scar is detected in the visible light, it will be definitely an interesting event which will be followed up by amateurs and professional astronomers.

Montage of Jupiter and the comet fragments of Shoemaker-Levy 9. Credit: NASA/ESA

These impacts or meteors are not only a distraction for planetary astronomers. They give us an opportunity to better understand the internal structure of Jupiter since the energetic ones reveal the lower deck of clouds and provide clues on its composition. Additionally, the complex pattern of jet stream winds at various latitudes can be also directly measured by monitoring the evolution of a scar over a long period of time like it was done for the 2009 impact.

It is also a way to assess the rate of large meteoroid impacts on the planets and understand the role of Jupiter in shielding the inner part of the solar system. Some theories suggest that Jupiter plays a role in maintaining Earth’s habitability by protecting our planet from impacts. This idea remains controversial and a direct measurements of the flux of meteors and impact rate may help to provide a better answer to this question.

Finally, even if this flash ends up being “just a meteor”, it is remarkable that amateur astronomers are today capable of monitoring almost permanently the planet Jupiter. These organized network teams are a great asset for professional astronomers since they can detect these events and quickly warn others.

About Franck Marchis

Dr. Franck Marchis is a Researcher at the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute since July 2007. Over the past 15 years, he has dedicated his research to the study of our solar system using mainly ground-based telescopes equipped with adaptive optics.

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