Search for Jupiter’s latest scars

Posted by Bill Andrews
on Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Amateur astronomer George Hall of Dallas captured Monday morning an impact on Jupiter from an unknown object. // photo by George Hall
Well, Jupiter’s done it again. The biggest planet in the solar system was the site of a bright impact early Monday morning, similar to collisions in the summers of 2010 and 2009. Scientists and observers aren’t sure exactly what hit Jupiter — most likely a stray comet or asteroid — but if the impact leaves behind a break in the planet’s cloud tops, it’ll shed some light on what kind of object created it.

The news apparently broke with a post from Dan Petersen of Racine, Wisconsin, on CloudyNights.com, who reported a “bright white two second long explosion just inside Jupiter's eastern limb, located at about Longitude 1 = 335, and Latitude = + 12 degrees north, inside the southern edge of the NEB,” referring to the jovian giant’s North Equatorial Belt. He made the observation through his Meade 12-inch LX 200 GPS scope and a binoviewer with 400x magnification. “We'll have to wait and see if a dark spot developes inside the southern regions of the NEB over the next day or two,” he wrote. “Good luck imaging this.”

Shortly after the post, Dallas astrophotographer George Hall confirmed the event with actual video footage of the collision. “Capturing an object impacting the planet Jupiter from my backyard was beyond my wildest imagination,” he tells me in an email. “It is like hitting the Mega-Jackpot lottery without even buying a ticket.”

Once he heard about the event from Petersen’s post, Hall went back to check on his previous night’s (and morning’s) Jupiter imaging, and soon found the bright crash. He also used a 12-inch LX 200 GPS scope, but with a 3x Tele Vue Barlow eyepiece and a Grey Flea 3 camera using Astro IIDC capture software. “I participate in astronomy and astrophotography as a hobby for the pleasure that I get from occasionally producing an image that shows details and features that I would never have imagined possible just a few years ago,” Hall says. “I hope that this chance event can help demonstrate to young people how much fun astronomy can be, and inspire some of them to give it a try.”

And that’s maybe the best part of all this! Not only is it great to know Jupiter saved us again from an errant space rock, but it’s encouraging to think that this significant solar system event was discovered and recorded by amateur astronomers. As with past Jupiter collisions (excluding 1994’s Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 impact, which got the Hubble Space Telescope’s full attention, among others), professional astronomers have to rely on “amateurs” for the earliest reports. It’s one more reminder that of all the sciences, astronomy is the easiest (and, some might say, “funnest”) for non-scientists to participate in and even to advance.

So congrats to Petersen and Hall! And if you missed the impact, you can still help by searching out the dark scars that might soon arise. You’ll be helping out astronomers and getting a pretty cool show of planetary science in action at the same time.

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