It was a “very, very big bang.”
Astronomers have captured video evidence of a collision between Jupiter and a small celestial body — likely a comet or an asteroid. Although the collision looked like a small flash of light, the resulting explosion was actually quite powerful.
According to Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy, the collision occurred on March 17, but confirmation of the event happened just this week.
The event was captured by amateur Austrian astronomer Gerrit Kernbauer, who was observing the planet in Mödling, Austria, using a Skywatcher Newton 200/1000 Telescope. This is a common technique used to capture thousands of frames of an object, and the best parts of each frame are then be used to produce a high-resolution image.
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Luckily, Kernbauer got a little more than he expected.
“The seeing was not the best, so I hesitated to process the videos,” Kernbauer wrote in the YouTube video description. “Nevertheless, 10 days later I looked through the videos and I found this strange light spot that appeared for less than one second on the edge of the planetary disc [...] my only explanation for this is an asteroid or comet that enters Jupiter's high atmosphere and burned up/explode very fast.”
Amazingly, another astronomer, John McKeon, also captured the event from Swords, Ireland. He was using a 20-centimeter (11-inch) Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope and an ASI120MM camera.
“The original purpose of the imaging session was to get this time-lapse, with a happy coincidence of the impact in the second, last capture of the night,” McKeon wrote in the YouTube video description.
It is still too early to know the exact details of the collision. However, NASA asteroid expert Paul Chodas, head of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said it’s likely the object was an asteroid rather than a comet. “It's more likely to be an asteroid simply because there are more of them,” Chodas told Space.com by phone.
According to Plait, the asteroid or comet was not very large, probably measuring only a few hundred feet in diameter. However, when it comes to celestial collisions, it’s not the size of the impactor that counts. Since Jupiter has such a huge mass, the object must have been accelerating rapidly, resulting in a huge release of kinetic energy on impact.
“On average, an object will hit Jupiter with roughly five times the velocity it hits Earth, so the impact energy is 25 times as high,” Plait explained to Slate. “The asteroid that burned up over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013 was 19 meters across, and it exploded with the energy of 500,000 tons of TNT.”
“Now multiply that by 25, and you can see how it doesn’t take all that big a rock to hit Jupiter for us to be able to see it from Earth,” Plait continued. The result, a “very, very big bang.”
This is not the first time Jupiter has been struck by an object. In fact, Jupiter gets hit a lot. “From our point of view this simply serves to remind us that impacts in the solar system are real and Jupiter gets more than its fair share of impacts,” said Chodas to Space.com. “It draws in a lot of asteroids and comets. We are seeing these impact flashes on Jupiter about once a year now.”