A fireball collided with Jupiter, and astronomers were able to record it on video

Ko Arimatsu, an astronomer at Kyoto University in Japan, received an interesting email two weeks ago: An amateur astronomer in his country had detected a bright flash in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Dr. Arimatsu, who runs Monitoring programme To study the outer solar system using backyard astronomy equipment, invite for more information. Six other reports of the August 28 flash — which, according to Dr. Arimatsu, is one of the brightest flashes ever recorded on the gas giant planet — came from Japanese sky watchers.

Such flashes are caused by asteroids or comets coming from the edges of our solar system and impacting Jupiter’s atmosphere. “Direct observation of these objects is nearly impossible, even with advanced telescopes,” Dr. Arimatsu wrote in an email. But Jupiter’s gravity attracts these objects, which eventually collide with the planet, “making it a unique and invaluable tool to study them directly,” he said.

Characterizing these flashes is a crucial way to understand the history of our solar system. Lee Fletcher, a planetary scientist at the University of Leicester in England, said it provides “a glimpse into the violent processes that were occurring in the early days of our solar system.” He added that it was like “seeing planetary evolution in action.”

Today, strong impacts on Jupiter are rarer, but they do happen. And in 1994, one comet Hit Jupiter with a lot of force It left a visible debris field. Astronomers witnessed another massive impact in 2009.

Most collisions with Jupiter, the fifth planet in the solar system, are observed opportunistically by amateur astronomers. (Eight of the nine flashes seen on Jupiter since 2010 have been reported by amateurs, according to Dr. Arimatsu.) They usually use a technique called Lucky photographywhich captures a video of part of the sky at a high frame rate.

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Dr Fletcher said these frames contain a “trove of data”, from which professional astronomers can infer information about Jupiter’s atmosphere, meteorology and storms.

According to Dr. Arimatsu’s preliminary analyses, the flash reported in August had a similar impact to the 1908 Tunguska explosion in Siberia, which experts believe was an asteroid. It tore up 800 square miles of forest. Dr. Arimatsu, who reported this event, said that this is the second Jupiter event observed in the past decade with this great energy. Last in 2021Its energy is estimated to be equivalent to two megatons of TNT.

Dr Fletcher said the final impact was not strong enough to leave behind a visible field of debris. Scientists study such effects to learn how Jupiter’s chemistry and temperature respond. He added that similar collisions may once have been important in shaping the composition of the planets we see in our solar system, and perhaps on other planets as well.

Astronomers focus on Jupiter because it is large, making it easier to see and more likely to suffer from the effects of cosmic debris. But some scientists believe that Saturn’s rings were once formed by such explosions, and Preliminary evidence It indicates that Uranus and Neptune were also hit.

“If I were a betting man, I would say that all of our giant planets are being bombarded by asteroids and comets,” Dr. Fletcher said.

Stargazers are waiting for the next big flash, which will create enough debris to be seen from Earth. When that happens, astronomers around the world will point their telescopes toward Jupiter to study the fallout, and the James Webb and Hubble Space Telescopes will likely join them as well.

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But since these winks at space are captured by chance, it’s the amateurs who really move the weight in this kind of research. “You can’t have hours and hours, night after night, in front of big professional telescopes,” Dr. Fletcher said. “You have to have dedicated backyard astronomers all over the world to be able to do this.”

Dr. Arimatsu also emphasizes the importance of small-scale astronomical initiatives in a field engulfed by mega-projects. “It is a vital part of the scientific community that is often overlooked,” he said.

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